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Scapegoat; Or (Why the Devil Always Loved Us) a satirical political drama now playing at the Den Theatre, takes the audience on a wild ride through a rather unusual family affair. But the play rapidly bogs down with its own complexity.

The curtain rises mid-action, and we gradually piece together that the six members of the Porter family are career politicians: patriarch Senator Anse Porter and his son, Congressman Coyote “Coy” Porter, represent Ohio as Democrats. The Senator’s Chief of Staff John Schuler is married to his daughter Leza, who is in the final weeks of her pregnancy. Matriarch Eleanor Porter and the Senator’s adopted daughter Margaret, are lobbyists for the United American Muslims.

The plot centers on the passage of a bill that would favor Christianity over other religions in the U.S. This bill is supported by Congressman Coy Porter, who is courted by the Religious Freedom Caucus, comprised of three Republican Senators: Frank Mason, Texas; Mary Colbourn, Illinois; and Perry Allen, Arizona.

Plans go awry when Congressman Porter’s father Anse, the senator, is outed as a Satanic Priest. He decides he will filibuster the bill. To dissuade him, so the bill can pass, the Religious Freedom Caucus hints they will award him a judgeship.

While it took a while to figure out what was going on, once I did, I loved the concept. And the play delivers some strong social commentary on religious freedom – a topic of great social currency. It also  scores some comedic points – Senator Porter delivers a complete Black Mass in downstage while the political drama unfolds upstage in convincingly delivered press conferences.

Jeffrey Freelon Jr. gives a strong performance as the put-upon Chief of Staff John Schuler. Likewise for Echaka Agba (Margaret), John Kelly Connolly (Frank), Barbara Figgins (Eleanor Porter), Jack McCabe (Perry), Cassidy Slaughter-Mason (Leza), Kelli Strickland (Mary) and Norm Woodel (Anse).

Scapegoat is needlessly layered, starting with its grammatically suspect title, through characters whose background and details have little bearing on the main action on stage: That Margaret is the Senator’s adopted daughter is revealed in the second act – along with the fact that she chose to keep her birth mother’s last name (so she is Okafor-Porter). So? Coy Porter is widowed, and occasionally has seizures. Um, did we need to know that? This made Evan Linder’s job playing Coy a challenge, but he rose to it.

Scapegoat is by and large a sentimental comedy. The script by Connor McNamara, a Chicago actor, brought to mind those fast-paced 1930’s screwball comedies loaded with mayhem. But the play is probably closer to You Can't Take It With You, George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart’s 1936 Pulitzer prize-winning satire. 

There are some rich moments here: Deciding to filibuster anyway, Anse reads chapter and verse from the satanic scriptures, driving the believing Caucus senators from the chamber floor. This intelligent script which renders the political processes and dynamics with veracity, is, is fast paced and strong at its core. The direction by Kristina Valada-Viars is very well done. Scapegoat plays through May 7. www.thenewcolony.org

Published in Theatre in Review
Monday, 12 September 2016 13:59

House’s Mr. Punch Shows the Way to Do It

It’s the beginning of a puppet-laden season in theatre this fall. Victory Gardens will be performing Hand to God, the story of a boy whose hand puppet is possessed by the devil, and later in the season, Writers Theatre will produce The Hunter and the Bear, their latest collaboration with Pigpen Theatre Company, which is expected to include the use of shadow puppets as storytelling devices. But first, The House Theatre of Chicago is now presenting their newest original work, A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch, a show which explores a fictionalized origin for England’s popular family annihilating marionette, and the minds of the people who came up with him. Featuring the best products of The House’s beloved design team, Mister Punch is a technical marvel, though the script by Kara Davidson is slow to start.

The earliest record of Punch and Judy shows comes from the seventeenth century, and the show is set slightly after that. Punch’s illegal immigrant Italian creator, Pietro Bologna (Adrian Danzig), ekes out an existence while dodging the authorities, as does the thief and street urchin, Charlotte (Sarah Cartwright). Fate brings them together, and Pietro decides he could use her as a bottler, the assistant who introduces shows and collects money. Disguised as a boy named Charlie, Charlotte is initially awful, but the puppets capture her imagination. They have inner life, Pietro tells her, though he guards his creations jealously, and insists that mass murder is the only acceptable ending for Mr. Punch’s stories. When Charlotte learns that Pietro visits a prostitute, Polly (Echaka Agba), whom he regards more as a mistress, she hopes that a softer side of her master might manifest through the puppets if she could only capture some of that affection in the play. But circumstances, and Pietro’s true disposition, are not so kind.

Lee Keenan’s scenic design is similar to the circus theme used in The House’s recently remounted Death and Harry Houdini, only this time, commedia dell’arte masks and puppet pieces dangle from the rafters. John Fournier’s original music contains several unnerving melodies, though naturally, few can compare with the props designed by Eleanor Kahn or with the puppets themselves, created by Jesse Mooney-Bullock. The leering grins of Punch, the crocodile, and the other denizens of his world look even more grotesque in the masks worn by the live actors (costumes by Izumi Inaba). Punch, played by Johnny Arena, appears in the flesh during scenes in which his puppeteers are acting him out, as do Judy (Carolyn Hoerdemann), his much-abused acquaintance, Joey (Joey Steakley), and his other victims. Though The House prides itself on innovative storytelling, few scenes in the show could be more highly theatricalized than these.

Or, at least, that will probably be the case after a few more runs. Though puppetry is often clumsy, more than was optimal seemed to be going wrong at opening, which distorted the pace of the comedy and caused some hesitancy among the actors during fight scenes. This has happened at other House shows, which were able to recover gracefully, but his time, the script was unfocused in the first act to the point where the performers didn’t have much to return to. In the second act, Davidson found her thread, and director Shade Murray was able to put together a story that was as alarming as it was open-ended. But in the first act, precious time was lost to self-indulgent interludes such as the main antagonist doing an impression of House artistic director Nathan Allen.

As annoying as some of the missed opportunities were, what happens in the second act more than redeems the show. We see Danzig’s Pietro as he truly is—not nearly as monstrous as his creation, but enough like him to confuse and disquiet the girl who can’t help seeing him as a friend. Cartwright’s performance takes over near the end, as with increasing desperation she attempts to turn the world of “cathartic violence” Pietro has devised into something kinder and more hopeful. Ironically, the scene which the opening night audience reacted the most viscerally to was one of the few instances of Pietro doing something truly altruistic, due to its graphic nature. The House strongly advises that this show is for teens, at the youngest. But for people able to enjoy and critique the Punch and Judy aesthetic, this show comes recommended.

A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch is being performed at the Chopin Theatre through October 23. Tickets are $30-35; for more information, visit TheHouseTheatre.com. Running time is two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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