Review: “At the Center” (The Agency Theater Collective)

At-the-Center-216-092214Show: At the Center

Company: The Agency Theatre Collective

Venue: Chicago Dramatists

Die Roll: 17

The Agency Theater Collective’s world premiere play, “At the Center”, delves into the aftermath of a wrongful conviction and the hardship that comes once the prison gates have swung open, and a man who has proclaimed his innocence for years is abruptly granted it. We follow Hector Reyes (Armando Reyes) just as his 19 year prison sentence is being overturned, and Elizabeth Harvey (Sommer Austin) the victim of the brutal assault for which Hector has served time. Elizabeth and Hector are advised by their various legal entities to exercise patience, as a bureaucratic flip of the coin could offer Hector his freedom, and dismantle the fragile walls that Elizabeth and her small family have built since her original decision to point her finger at an innocent man. If Elizabeth is wrong, she has implications to face for all of the time she spent actively despising a man who only wished to spare her harm and scrutiny as a girl.

The unexpected strain that comes when Hector is given his freedom, or the mania that plagues Elizabeth when she must recount the story she’s repressed for years to her own daughter are the play’s great strengths. From Hector’s initial interrogation, to the prison rituals he maintains as he trades his cell for an eerily similar unadorned bedroom, Armando Reyes’ slipping grasp on his anger and patience is powerful. Likewise, Sommer Austin’s Elizabeth letting go of a prickly façade she’s kept for her daughter’s (Nicole Magerko) sake provides “At the Center” with a breath of relief strong enough to make tensions vanish for a time.

Where author-directors Andrew Gallant and Tim Touhy have allowed their creation to falter, however, is in service of the real-life institution that was the inspiration of their story, the Center on Wrongful Convictions on Northwestern University. A pair of attorneys and three industrious law students are not fully formed characters, but handy vessels for exposition, wrongful-conviction related statistics and cheerful anecdotes. How apt is it that Center attorney, Bill (James Munson) gathers his colleagues to recount a tale from his younger days as a reporter that just so happens to sum up this productions’ theme (“When a crime is committed in a community, a wound appears. A hole at the center.”)? A bit too apt. Time spent at the Center is time spent away from Hector and Elizabeth, the motors of this particular story.

“At the Center” is a commendable work, but a work still in progress. It hits all the beats of a modern stage drama, and is designed and performed with zeal by terrific artists, but there is still work to be done to bring two story halves into a cohesive whole.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Exonerated convict and victim try to forgive, but can’t forget.

RATING: d8 – “Not Bad, Not Great”

Review: “Dancing in the Storm” (Adapt Theatre Productions)

"Dancing In The Storm", Adapt Theatre Productions @ Redtwist
“Dancing In The Storm”, Adapt Theatre Productions @ Redtwist

Show: Dancing in the Storm

Company: Adapt Theatre Productions

Venue: Redtwist Theatre

Die Roll: 11

So much has gone into the look of Tonia Sina’s Dancing in the Storm, that it is hard not to be instantly taken in when you set foot onto the white, life-size blue-print that encompasses all life for our nameless, stricken heroine. Locations spring up when zebra striped squares nestle together, and color is so specific and spare, it can denote a place, a person, a relationship or a mood (Zebra stripes for instance? Also the awareness ribbon color for rare diseases). It’s no fluke that our purple-clad heroine picks out her compliment on the color wheel and marries him, or that she feels just outside of fitting into collegiate seas of red and blue students.

At the heart of Dancing, is one woman’s tale of hardship, survival and coping with kidney failure and rare blood disorder aHUS. A life unfolds onstage, taking us on every step from her diagnosis, as she battles worsening conditions, longing for normality, tedium and medical ineptitude. Through it all, she finds pillars of support in her family, and more support as she reaches out into the vast internet expanse and allows herself to vent her most piteous gasps to her virtual community. Our heroine’s conundrum comes from online backlash; In the face of a few detractors, she considers clicking away her entire story. But we can see just how idle that threat is. Like any entertainer, she starves for the applause of the blog’s supportive comments. Her condition keeps her from the stage, so she makes her own stage by donning heels and posting pin-up shots from her hospital bed.

Katie Reynolds plays our nameless heroine, and is great fun to watch, filled with boundless energy, as is Angela Horn, as her mother and Eric Feltes, as her eventual husband. Their story is so familiar and warm that narration taken straight from the ‘Kidneys & Pinups’ blog is almost superfluous. It tells the story twice. Dancing’s strength is appropriately in movement, and the choreography based story-telling is so graceful and economical that anything taken from her digital memoir feels slightly less magical in comparison. Statements of “I feel abandoned” hang in the air like rough translations. Whereas, seeing our heroine staring out into a sea of faces that won’t look her in the eye is that abandonment, personified.

The words are still fresh with white-hot anger and fear felt by a young woman in the moment. They are pleas for justice for her lost years that go unanswered. They are a bitter, lonely and scathing review of an unfeeling medical industry, at times. What we miss is an element of growth. Surely, the same woman who has come back from grueling set-backs and slipped back into her heels wouldn’t waste a minute of her time giving voice to parties who added to her woe. Not when there’s a waiting audience and more pin-ups to stage.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Chaotic life of illness is kept tidy and color-coded.

RATING: d10, Worth Going To

Review: “Outside Agitators” (20% Theatre Company)

WebsiteImage_girlfriend1Show: Outside Agitators

Company: 20% Theatre Company

Venue: Prop Thtr (3502 N Elston)

Die Roll: 13

This is the perfect time for a play such as 20% Theatre’s “Outside Agitators” to emerge onto Chicago’s theater landscape. It joins a dialog already in progress at a moment when tensions are still burning hot in response to systematic abuses and wrongful deaths in Ferguson, MO. Like the uncertain protagonist of “Outside Agitators”, Ava, millions of onlookers contemplate their TV screens, propelled to be more than observers of their country’s unrest, just unsure on how to go about it.

Taking place almost 50 years ago during the 1965 voting rights marches in Selma, AL, “Outside Agitators” casts an eerily similar reflection of modern social upheaval. Seasoned voting rights activist Randall Armstrong (an antsy and maligned leader as played by Aaron Mays) and fresh recruit Leroy Moton (Eric Gerard as a sometimes devoted, sometimes evasive young man) prepare to organize hundreds of marchers to face Selma authorities. They are nursing fresh wounds administered by police batons and the death of fellow marcher, Jimmy Lee Jackson, at the hands of the police has everyone on edge. Meanwhile, two white, middle class mothers far from the turmoil- the adept and knowledgeable Viola Liuzzon (a real champion of voting rights played with bluster by Eva Laporte) and rudderless Ava Mathis (Kristi Forsch, an unrepentant whirlwind)- each dodge their skeptical families and venture to Selma to support and march in solidarity with primarily black activists.

It is here where the production’s conceits begin to unravel, and what could have been insightful storytelling takes a backseat to history, exposition and the mechanics of bringing these unlikely parties together. Author Laura Nessler and director Amy C. Buckler assemble a cast of characters without an ounce of shame, secretiveness or subtext. The characters have no problem unloading their fears and desires on anyone who asks, which gives the impression that nothing is very deeply felt among the activists. Long held prejudices disappear and slights are forgiven not after trust is earned, but whenever it’s convenient. Precautions are followed religiously to ward off the unseen menace of police and incensed whites, but forgotten instantly when the characters could use a violent wake-up-call.

It’s hard to hold out hope for central character Ava, who joins the march impulsively, and struggles to pin-point why even after the marches are over. After arriving and announcing that she has nothing to contribute to the cause, we want her to emerge with her spine a little more developed. Instead we watch her soak up limited resources, endanger her friends, and disappear back home at everyone’s behest. Without much prompting, Leroy’s distraught mother Jessie (Shariba Rivers) admits the hardship that frozen dinner production has dealt her family to Ava. However, Ava returns home to heat up aluminum trays without so much as a flicker of acknowledgement. Maybe her presence is intended as a poignant finger point at the silent majority who forget unrest instantly. It’s hard to say.

“Outside Agitators” comes very close to delivering a well-timed message about organized American revolt and how little circumstances have changed over the decades. It comes very close to doing justice to real activist, Viola Liuzzon, and borders on understanding the circumstances that can spur an impassioned outsider to action.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Rebel meets cause, but she doesn’t have much to contribute.

RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”

Review: “The Arsonists” (Strawdog Theatre Company)

"The Arsonists" at Strawdog
“The Arsonists” at Strawdog

Show: The Arsonists

Company: Strawdog Theatre Company

Venue: Strawdog Mainstage

Die Roll: 16

When pressure from all sides is at its greatest, wealthy businessman Biedermann turns to the audience of Strawdog Theatre’s The Arsonists, because, in order to save face, he’s chased off any other sounding board or willing ear. He asks us when we knew the strange men at his door and in his attic were in fact the arsonists he’d been so carefully warned against. And well, because authors Max Frisch and Alistair Beaton have crafted an absurd allegory and their characters are much bigger and broader than they seem, Biedermann’s not going to like our answer. That homeless gentle-giant whose past employers have all burned to the ground hasn’t fooled us for a moment. When the lights went up, and the businessman flung his newspaper, scoffing at the likelihood he would ever fall victim to the arsonists’ blatant ruse, we know exactly what he is in for.

But I’m getting ahead of myself! The Arsonists, directed by Matt Hawkins, is an ‘oughts era update an absurd comedy written in the aftermath of World War II and a commentary on the atmosphere and thinking that allows for despicable acts to occur while blind eyes are turned. Biedermann, played by Robert Kauzlaric, grimacing with increasingly tight-winding energy, has eschewed the advice of the diligent and ever-present fire brigade and taken in some unsavory boarders. Schmitz (Scott Danielson, booming and deftly navigating a stage that seems a shade too small for him) dares the businessman to deny room and board to a sweet man-child, and ever-honest Eisenring (Ira Amyrx), who- wait, just how did he get in here with all those oil barrels?

Biedermann is determined to outwit the firebugs on his own; intent on returning to his simple life and making the arsonists someone else’s problem.  But he simply isn’t willing to lose face to his sedated wife (Sarah Goeden), his overworked maid (Rebecca Wolfe), a chorus of firefighters, or the arsonists themselves. He traps himself in his pride and failed efforts to manipulate a bad situation in his favor. As Biedermann finds his options narrowing in the face of impending fiery doom, the stage closes in on him, a tangle of scaffolding, fuse wire and fire hose.

When he breaks the fourth wall in Brechtian fashion to ask us when we knew he was in league with arsonists, Biedermann opens the flood gates for more uncomfortable questions: at what point do we go from observers to complicit in heinous acts? Where is that line drawn? Do our good intentions ever matter? The Arsonists is an argument against accepting an ‘inevitable fate’ says guest speaker and historian Dr. Eugene Beiriger in a post-show panel discussion. Even as his situation steadily worsens, Biedermann is never without the opportunity to act, but chooses not to; possibly a familiar choice to an audience of people pursuing our own simple lives.

With The Arsonists, Strawdog has cultivated a thought provoking production and an artistic team perfectly suited to their space and a terrific addition to a season devoted to those tricky personal and political grey areas.

TEN WORD SUMMARY:  Ruthless fire starters can’t bring one man up to code.

RATING: d12- “Heckuva Good Show”


Review: “Vieux Carré” (Raven Theatre)

VC Cast

Show: Vieux Carré

Company: Raven Theatre

Venue: Raven Theatre

Die Roll: 3

A quick admission that will shock absolutely no one: I am a huge fan of covert eavesdropping. Neighbors, you can safely assume that if you are having a fairly audible tiff with the missus, I have put my television on mute and am listening for all the lurid details. The same goes for phone arguments on public transit; I may look like I’m reading, but it’s a façade and I’m actually listening intently. Nowhere is this habit more celebrated than in Tennessee Williams’ 1977 drama “Vieux Carré”, in which a number of derelict residents in a New Orleans boarding house fail utterly in convincing anyone but themselves that they are still healthy, employable and respectable members of society.

There’s landlady Mrs. Wire (JoAnne Montemurro) a tyrant with memory loss, not above spitting on, screaming at and scalding her tenants to keep them in line, and consumptive artist Nightingale (Will Casey) proclaiming his cough is a bout of asthma, nothing more. Across the hall are Jane and Tye (Eliza Stoughton and Joel Reitsma) a disgraced socialite and her drug-addled lover who can only be woken for sex or sparring. Housekeeper on the constant verge of retirement, Nursie (Sandra Watson), corrals the remaining roster of vagrants and deviants, however ineffectively.

Tying them all together is Williams’ own proxy without a name. The Writer (Ty Olwin) barely has the chance to reclaim his hocked typewriter before the blank-slate boy is claimed as a fellow conspirator, son, nubile ward and chess partner to each of the residents. They embrace him instantly, and in turn, the writer spends his hours with an ear cupped to each of their doors.

“Vieux Carré” is rendered beautifully onstage at the Raven with wallpaper tears, plaster cracks and burned out light bulbs.  It is languid even in the face of enormous stakes. It takes these tenants some convincing that the inevitable dissolution of their lives and relationships has begun. We in the aisles wait patiently for them, already well educated in the downward trajectory to expect from William’s iconic characters (There’s an equal cultural significance to Stanley Kowalski, be he a brooding Marlon Brando or a singing, dancing Ned Flanders). There is not even much shock to the sex and violence that punctuate rainy evenings at the Vieux Carré that our Netflix queues haven’t adequately prepared us for.

The interesting question that “Vieux Carré” raises and leaves hanging, unanswered for us, is where exactly the line is drawn between observer and participant. At what point does the collecting of stories leave a bitter taste in the mouth of the person with some influence to change those stories? Williams’ writer becomes shameless in his pursuit of intimate secrets, but when it becomes apparent that the tenement and its residents are sinking into oblivion, neither his conscience, nor the weight of kindness he’s been shown, is quite staunch enough to keep him from fleeing the wreckage. Still, I must remember to remove my own cup from the door before passing judgment on the lad.

“If somebody does something stupid in front of him, David [Sedaris] says, he goes home, writes it down, tells his friends and sometimes turns it into a story that he reads in front of thousands of or tens of thousands of strangers. And so, when he says something stupid he believes that it is possible the shopkeepers and waiters just shrug it off and never think about it again. But it seems just as possible that they go tell their friends and laugh.” -Ira Glass describing David Sedaris, This American Life.


TEN WORD SUMMARY: Dilapidated N’awlins boarding house; nine degenerates enter, one playwright leaves.

RATING: d10- “Worth Going To”