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I was a "psychonaut librarian” as a child without even knowing it. My grandparents’ house was only two blocks from the beautifully built, stunning Coral Gables Library in South Miami, Florida.

 

I spent all my spare time there, drinking in the smell of library books and wisdom. Each new book I read seemed to open a new world for me. First, they were fantasy worlds, like The Phantom Tollbooth, later I began to read more and more about psychology and self-help, each time hoping that the book in my hands would offer an insight into having the happy, successful dreamy life I imagined lay ahead.  Yes, I was a shy, gentle book nerd, and I felt often that reading was the answer to all my problems. 

 

Sean Kelly's "Psychonaut Librarians", now in a world premiere with The New Colony is a funny, delightful poetically phrased tale about a mother and daughter and their fellow book worm friends discovering magical worlds at the library. 

 

Librarian Hester, played with both warmth and biting wit by David Cerda (Artistic Director of the hugely popular campy Hell in a Handbag Productions), is trying to save her daughter Jane (Christine Mayland Perkins) from giving up on her dreams and into society's constant fear creating machine. Hester a single mother to Jane, greets her with the single revealing question about her ex, "How is Daddy? Still suffocatingly small-minded?".

 

Hester has developed a potion that allows her to go all the way into the fantasy world of reading into a place she calls "Anyverse" where anything can happen and dreams do not die without a fight. 

 

Hester shares the potion with her grown daughter one night and while in the Anyverse Jane meets a lover named Dewey, played with much joy by Matt Farabee, a handsome Christ-like figure of love and innocence.  

 

In each other's arms Jane finds true love. They dance and fly through the Anyverse on a beautifully lit, ever changing, yet intimate, stage. Dewey tells Jane the ultimate romantic verse, "{In Jane) I found what I did not even know I was looking for and in finding her, I found myself," Jane stares into his loving, smiling face and states that this meeting is one of the "perfect moments” that she will add to her sadly short list of perfect moments. 

 

But of course, as in "real" life, the enjoyment of freedom of life and love in the Anyverse is threatened by an evil force called The Sandman played with the proper amount of military, know it all, fear inducing power by Jack McCabe.

 

The Sandman has the ability to literally suck the soul out of each human by drawing out their worst fears and causing them to act on them instead of holding fast to positive thinking. 

 

Despite their obviously great and perfect matching Dewey flip flops helplessly from loving adoration to murderous hatred for Jane in an instant and begins to strangle Jane each time The Sandman makes him insecure about her love by sending him negative subconscious suggestions. 

 

Jane's mother Hester sees this pattern of abuse and danger to her daughter and makes the ultimate sacrifice by chasing the Sandman away with the promise that she will not ALLOW her daughter to awaken from the dreary, fear filled thought patterns of everyday earth "reality" into the Anyverse ...ever again. 

 

When Jane is awakened from the Anyverse by her mother and is forced to part with Dewey, Jane becomes bitter about life and retreats from taking chances, creativity, or really falling in love and trying new things to follow the strict societal mores dictated by The Sandman about choosing work and security above joyous spontaneity.

 

Sadly, this division leads Jane to become estranged from her own loving, creative mother and the library itself, a symbol of the power of imagination - for 20 years.

 

Jane is inexplicably drawn to the library on the eve of her mother's retirement, where Hester’s fellow Psychonaut Librarians have arranged a "potion" party to enter the Anyverse all together. 

 

Hester's fellow librarians, the stiff-necked Emmerick (Michael Peters) and hopeful, brainy free spirit, Rosemary (Morgan McNaught) and the library's "security guy" (Carlos Olmedo), who also ends up drinking the spiked punch, are all played with excellent comic timing, and their scenes are some of the funniest and most clever dialogue in the show. 

 

This hopeful, desperate for magic crew of psychonauts enter the Anyverse together and immediately each is tested by the dreams, or rather nightmares, of their own worst fears of failure.

 

There are puppets used to represent the fearful dreams and perfected in a clever bit where the puppets are used to represent the characters’ abilities to walk through walls or make themselves small enough to escape a demon dream through a crack in a solid wall. Hester makes a great sacrifice to help rescue them all. 

 

The great thing is that each character, no matter how weak their "punches or kicks' may be, are forced to physically take a stand and fight! Each character must really wrestle and fight to defeat their bad dreams and thought patterns. 

 

In the end, Jane returns to the library without her lover Dewey - but with a newfound belief in the power of magic, and the existence of magic itself. Magic that is ALIVE right there alongside her in the library of life - and the reality of alternate positive realms, exciting realities beyond her own. 

 

Director Krissy Vanderwarker does the best she can on a limited budget to create a romantic pacing and lovely, magical choreography for Jane and Dewey that transitions well into the more comical present day or fantasy scenes. 

 

Kelly's script has gone thru many cuts over the years but is approaching a more perfect balance between what is both a supernatural love story and an "Universal" love story that boldly, yet sensitively, declares the existence of an alternate reality based entirely on love. 

 

The line, "I found what I did not even know I was looking for!  And in finding her, I found myself" kept haunting me after the show ended, as did several of the poetic speeches delivered by Jane to Dewey while sharing flowing descriptions of the deliciousness of their loving, soaring, literally "flying" in each other's arms new love... in words. These scenes were very well written and sometimes seemed like they belonged in an entirely different show. 

 

The character of Dewey, with his shoulder length dirty blonde hair, casual hoody, sandals and all-encompassing smile is best interpreted as a Christ figure, a non-sexual person, a teacher and guru of unconditional love living forever in the Anyverse. Dewey was not supposed to become a human man whose sexual partnership in the "real" world or like a Prince in a fairy tale whose marriage to Jane would effortlessly make her life into an adventure or positivity and magic. 

 

The playwright makes it clear to the end that the daily decision to hold tightly to and fight for her own dreams is up to Jane herself, which is as it should be.

 

Before the show began, the artistic director came out and mentioned how MANY scripts they have been receiving as of late, eluding to the election of Trump (The Sandman himself?), from new writers and how EAGER artists now are to have their words HEARD.

 

I highly recommend this funny, romantic, hopeful show for audiences of any age. “Psychonaut Librarians” would also make a valuable children's theater piece.

 

"Your soul is not living inside your body; your body is living inside your soul.” 

 

For heart weary adult Democrats like myself who are literally praying for a magical happy ending to what appears to be a complete takeover of millions of American minds by the evil Sandman, “Psychonaut Librarians” offered me a wonderful evening of hope, encouragement and rainbow lit entertainment. 

 

New Colony’s “Psychonaut Librarians” is playing at Den Theatre through February 12th. For more show information of to purchase tickets, click here

 

Published in Theatre in Review

If you were to take a survey of teenagers and young adults to determine which social issue they’re most interested in seeing addressed onstage, mass shootings would be near the top of the list. Though the kind of incident in which an ideologically fanatical and/or severely mentally ill individual massacres a random group of people is not how the majority of murders occur, or the type of shooting Chicago public school students are most likely to encounter, it is something I’ve found that students have a strong desire to discuss. Of course, discussing something is quite different from discussing it intelligently, and the “conversation” around school shootings is filled with so much nonsense and has so little legislative effect that people have become jaded enough for Heathers: The Musical to exist (and be funny). But that’s where playwright Caitlin Parrish comes in. Working with director Erica Weiss, Parrish has adapted the ancient Greek story of Antigone into a new play which not only allows its characters to be complex and intelligent, but is an interesting story in its own right, and worthwhile for adults to see during a public performance.

The Antigone imagined by Sophocles was one who sacrificed her life by defying her uncle Creon to give her treacherous brother a proper burial. The one imagined by Jean Anouilh in 1944 switched her motivations so rapidly that Anouilh’s Creon excused himself by saying she simply wished to be martyred and did not care what principle she ostensibly died for. Parrish’s Antigone, named Sophie Martin (Olivia Cygan), has no desire to sacrifice herself at all. The favorite child of a widowed Republican senator running for re-election as a moderate, high school senior Sophie has just cast her vote in her first primary election when shots ring out at her school. Upon learning that her brother, Ben (Matt Farabee), was the killer and concluded his massacre in suicide, her first thought is that she hopes his body hasn’t been left alone, and her second thought is to hope the media does not release his name until the polls are closed. Sophie has made supporting her father’s career her purpose in life, and is deeply disappointed in Ben for what she perceives as a calculated attempt to kill their family socially, along with his more direct victims. In this version, he is buried quickly, in an unmarked grave outside of town, but Sophie is troubled at how easily her father, Ryan (Coburn Goss), and sister, Chloe (Becca Savoy), join everyone else in writing him off as evil.

Sophie’s discomfort increases when her father declares that he wants teachers to be armed, and implies he would have killed Ben himself had he known what he was planning. She’s also blindsided by how suspicious her classmates are of her—to have not known Ben was a psychopath means she must either have been stupid or been covering for him, and they know she’s not stupid. As her father’s plan to rebuild his public image as Ben’s most prominent surviving victim proves surprisingly successful, Sophie finds herself disagreeing with him on the wisdom of widespread access to firearms. He claims that she is simply trying to avoid acknowledging what Ben was so he won’t reflect poorly on her, but Sophie believes whatever was wrong with Ben isn’t as easily addressed or as relevant to any other mass shooting as cracking down on guns.

Parrish’s script sometimes strays close to letting characters speechify, but generally, she motivates their responses quite well. The nine-member ensemble all acquit themselves marvelously, with Cygan expertly managing the difficult task of keeping a somewhat objectionable and high-handed protagonist clever and active enough to maintain the audience’s interest. Higher on the sympathy scale is Savoy’s sardonic Chloe, who, as a lesbian from a Republican household, had relied more upon the school than her family for a social network, and is more upset by having that taken from her. Goss’ senator is no caricature, but he doesn’t display the same level of conflict over what to do with Sophie as most Creons. His claim that he specifically is needed in Washington and he therefore must be willing to sacrifice his family seems to have little basis, but the playwright allows him to sound reasonable despite disagreeing with him.

The school, too, is host to a wide array of richly developed characters. Stephanie Andrea Barron plays Sophie’s friend Janette, who is from a far less-comfortable background and already had mechanisms for coping with violence; her boyfriend, Jayden (Joel Boyd) never liked Sophie in the first place, perhaps saw her as a rival, and is the kind of person who displays his books so everybody can be impressed by what he’s reading (it’s Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me). Greg (Ty Olwin) is a profoundly hurt friend of a victim who finds the Martins unspeakably vile, while Brianna (Aurora Adachi-Winter) is a survivor whose brief appearance in a video at the beginning of the play instantly establishes an unsettling tension. It was wise of Parrish to grant the chorus so much individuality—the community feels much more authentic when its differences can be acknowledged, and the play has a heart which is sometimes missing in modern remountings of Greek tragedies. Representing her and Weiss’s own generation are a teacher and a newscaster played by Kristina Valada-Viars, one of whom, being in her mid-thirties, declares herself too old to lead the cause of gun control, and the other of whom outright admits she has been faking her routine shock and grief for a while.

Courtney O’Neill’s set design contains a nod to what the Athenian theatre is supposed to have looked like in the time of Sophocles, but it also allows room for Joseph A. Burke’s projections. Ben appears in the form of a vapid video diary he kept which endlessly frustrates the other characters by providing very little help in figuring out his motivations, but his posthumous presence on social media becomes a major recurring plot point. Parrish used the premise of Antigone, but since the point of the play is to make teenagers feel empowered, one can see long in advance that it’s not a tragedy. Parrish and Weiss also aren’t shy about using the play to advocate for stricter gun regulation, or possibly elimination, but the context of Steppenwolf’s encouragement of discussion and feedback prevents this from feeling propagandistic, and they present a reasoned argument with respect for the other side. Based on the differences between how Goss and Valada-Viars’s characters are represented, they seem harder on themselves, which, when ninety percent of the public supports stricter background checks and is unable to move Congress, gun-regulation advocates perhaps ought to be. 

One of the most encouraging things about this production is that there exist people who understand the myriad viewpoints that exist surrounding mass shootings and respect young peoples’ experiences and concerns. Acknowledgement isn’t progress in itself, but it is a precondition to progress that is often lacking, and Weiss’s cast display genuine empathy. This show isn’t meant to condescendingly educate teenagers about themselves; it’s a mirror held up to the people most effected by an issue, and for them and everyone else concerned about mass shootings, The Burials is highly recommended.

 

Public performances of The Burials are on October 14 at 7:30 pm, October 15 at 3:00 pm, and October 22 and 3:00 pm and 7:30 pm in Steppenwolf’s upstairs theatre at 1650 N Halsted Ave, Chicago. For ticket information, see Steppenwolf.org.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

American Theater Company starts the year with a world premiere by author Dan LeFranc, directed by Joanie Schultz. "Bruise Easy" is a modern day retelling of Electra, set in the seemingly vapid world of southern California. 

 

When Tess (Kelly O'Sullivan) returns to her childhood home to find her estranged brother Alec (Matt Farabee) smoking weed on the driveway, she's mortified. In a series of somewhat unanswered questions, we're given a glimpse into a family torn apart by imperfect parents. Scenes are punctuated by a group of masked "neighborhood kids" who serve as the Greek chorus. With a short running time of 85 minutes, stand-up Tess and screw-up Alec trade barbs and acts of uncomfortable sexual tension. 

 

LeFranc's script is troubled though. While the gimmick of the Greek chorus is at first interesting, it ends up becoming a major distraction and overall pretty useless as a storytelling device. The author tries to communicate his heavy-handed message about suburban ambitions through this technique, which instead should be more apparent in the dialogue between Tess and Alec. 

 

"Bruise Easy" is missing a lot of crucial pieces and leaves viewers without any specific answers. LeFranc fails to develop his characters' narratives, which is a shame because O'Sullivan and Farabee are both really riveting performers to watch. 

 

The dialogue never quite gives us what we want. What happened to their mother? Why is Tess even there? What's the deal with the house? Why can't they go in? Instead, a lot of emphasis is placed on reminding us that it's 2005. Unfortunately many of the ways we're reminded come off as forced. Putting audiences in a certain time period involves more than dated pop culture references. 

 

LeFranc would certainly benefit from either adding more to the script or subtracting the elements that don't work, and clarifying the hazy details. There's just too much dead air here. It's apparent the author knows a lot more about these characters than he's letting on. He seems more concerned with the idea that it's a Greek tragedy set in California than he is the actual lives of the characters. 

 

Director Joanie Schultz's vision for this show also tends to stand in the way. There's an MTV circa-1995 aesthetic that really doesn't match the tone of the script. "Bruise Easy" has an anti-establishment theme running through it, but it's not as cheeky as the interlude graphics and pop music wants it to be. There's a lot going on here, and narrowing what exactly LeFranc wants his audience to leave with will benefit this play in subsequent productions. 

 

Through February 14th at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron Street. 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Saturday, 13 June 2015 00:00

Review: Abraham Lincoln Was A F*gg*t

What do Michael Jackson and Abraham Lincoln have in common? Playwright Bixby Elliot explores the parallels between the sixteenth president, the king of pop and the landscape for LGBT youth in his new play “Abraham Lincoln was a Faggot” at About Face Theatre.

Elliot’s play follows two intertwining narratives in an attempt to answer the eternal question: was Abraham Lincoln gay? In the present, there is Cal (Matt Farabee), a high schooler coming to terms with his sexuality while trying to prove Lincoln’s orientation. In the past, there is the supposed story of Lincoln’s homosexual love affairs. In between are Cal’s terrified mother (Jessie Fisher) and uncle (Nathan Hosner) who must traverse the uneasy waters of an older generation’s attitude toward homosexuality.

Director Andrew Volkoff brings together a well-equipped cast for this show. Dana Black’s clowning as narrator, historian and Ellen Degeneres will likely be most remembered. She accents and punctuates nearly every scene and it brings a much needed sense of lightness. Jessie Fisher in a duel role as both Mary Todd Lincoln and Cal’s mother balances  eccentricity and subtlety.

Bixby’s script, even if at times extraneous, has a lot of heart and makes a lot of great points about our media obsessed culture. At first the Michael Jackson musical numbers and background tracks seem strangely out of place, but as the show continues the script points to two lives lived under grueling American scrutiny. The author writes from a much more closeted generation than our current times, but still the struggle to live a life that is true to oneself is the ultimate argument. This essential human necessity transcends race, gender, class and sexuality. The script is well-structured and under Volkoff’s direction, has a real sense of emotional authenticity that could be lost in such an inventive concept.

Through July 5th. At the Green House Theatre Center. 2257 N Lincoln Ave. 773-404-7336

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

 

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