Dance in Review

Kimberly Katz

Kimberly Katz

Destiny of Desire begins with the actors breaking the fourth wall, walking among the audience, encouraging them to relax and have fun. As they complete their tasks setting up the empty Goodman soundstage on which the telenovela we are about to watch is being shot, the entire cast announces with glee, “We are here to change the social order! Deal with it!”

 

And change the order they do, especially where the reputations and struggles of the Latino community are concerned. Playwright Karen Zacarías so grew weary of the way many plays written by Hispanics were dismissively compared to "telenovelas”, a form of soap opera-like entertainment. We are informed during the show that telenovelas are watched by a third of the world’s population - a full two billion fans around the world. Zacarías succeeds marvelously in parodying a true telenovela for the stage full of twists and turns and sexy passionate, and sometimes tragic, stories while using the play to advance feminist values in a subtle but very important way.

 

For example, when two young girls are struck in the face by their father when they are caught kissing, the father, Armando Castillo (Castulo Guerro), quickly laments his violence and cries that a woman should never be hit by a man - never be hit with anything more harsh than a single rose petal. 

 

Likewise, when the rich villainess of the piece, Fabiola Castillo (played to perfection by the elegant and serpentinely sexy Ruth Livier) seems to make you totally disgusted with her gold digging, self-centered un-motherly behavior, the audience finds out that Fabiola was herself a poor girl subjected to repeated sexual abuse before escaping the farm life and painstakingly transforming herself into a blonde bombshell, eventually marrying to the richest man in the town.  

 

The story starts simply enough when two women (one rich and one poor) give birth at the same time at the same hospital. When the baby belonging to the privileged family is found sickly, the mother begs the doctor to make a switch so that she can have the healthy infant – and he does, pawning the other off on the farmhands. The plot thickens at virtually every corner in this hilarious in this oft steamy, oft scandalous Spanish soap opera set for stage – a show that literally keeps the audience plugged in from its opening scene. The journey follows the happenings as these women take destiny into their own hands. 

 

There are so many twists and turns, it would be a disservice to reveal the plot-lines but the most important message that runs throughout the show from the first scene to the last is that each mother and each daughter born to each family (one poor family and one rich) is the most precious miracle, a blessing bestowed by God and that no matter what the daughter's talents, beauty or graces or mistakes, they should all be protected from abuse or health neglect at any cost. 

 

The set detail truly creates an atmosphere to which we can easily become lost, sit back and just enjoy the story. Each of the men and women are dressed to sexy perfection in Julie Weiss’ true to telenovela form in dazzlingly modern costumes. The costumes by Julie Weiss are so VERY the typical telenovela, the lighting by Pablo Santiago floods the stage with oink, and the golden lights and large swathes of white fabric are ingeniously used to symbolize the desert sands, which is perfectly romantic and also constantly changing. I adored the swiftly moving and beautifully lit set by Francois-Pierre Couture.

 

Although, this is not a musical a pianist provides the score and there are songs, beautiful rich songs sung with passion in Spanish by many of the characters. Not knowing the lyrics in English makes no difference as these lovely pieces bond the show together and send the emotions soaring in a way that deepens the love you feel for each character's plight without stopping the comedy flow.  

 

Now that I know that two billion people are watching and enjoying this form of entertainment, I sincerely hope the huge success of this show makes its feminist message a regular part of telenovelas being produced right now, more than ever. 

 

Throughout the nearly non-stop humor in the show, there are also current day ad libs which refer to Donald Trump, the life expectancy of Hispanics in America (the highest despite financial and health insurances challenges) and the fact is pointed out that one out of every hundred Americans are behind bars because we incarcerate more of our citizens than any other country - messages all of which are delivered in a very funny and brief way which makes each fact that more clear without sounding preachy or out of place. Some are humorous while others are strong in message, one of the more shocking factoids divulging that one person is found dead each day in the desert between Mexico and the United States attempting to cross the border.

 

Karen Zacarias’ parody of the telenovela both does the art form justice and “cleans it up a little” in terms of political correctness in the most palatable way. 

 

Zacarias knows exactly how the pure unadulterated passion of men for the women in their lives can devolve into a passionate rage against the daughters and mothers of OTHER men without distinction in the man’s mind. 

 

Destiny of Desire is a very funny lampoon on telenovelas that perfectly exaggerates the absurdities while giving us an entertaining story where nothing is predictable. 

 

Finely directed by Jose Luis Valenuela, a talented cast from top to bottom perform to perfection this highly amusing script. Esperanza America and Ella Saldana North are just dynamite as the two sisters separated from their true families at birth while Eduardo Enrikez engages the audience each time he appears on stage with his campy portrayal of Sebastian Jose Castillo. Maurico Mendoza and Elsa Bocanegra flawlessly play the poor Del Rio parents as do Ricardo Gutierrez and Fidel Gomez in the roles of father and son doctors, Dr. Jorge Ramiro Mendoza and Dr. Diego. Adding to what is already Well-thought comedic touches are littered throughout the production, the actors performing ballet moves as they switch out the props.   

 

Destiny of Desire is highly recommended as a sexy production that keeps a rapid pace, delivers buckets of comedy and engrosses from the word “Go”.  

 

Destiny of Desire is being performed at Goodman Theatre through April 16th. For tickets or more show information, click here

 

Replacing the twenty-eight-year long-running hit show "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind", which was known for delivering thirty original plays in sixty minutes with an ever-changing cast, is a new troupe of high energy players each with their own personal gifts and comedic skills. In the same tradition, Neo Futurium now presents The Infinite Wrench. 

Greg Allen, the original founder of the name and style of such theater decided to revoke the use of the name and concept a few years after he left the troupe in 2011. The last performance of “Too Much Light” came on December 31st, 2016. The show, as most know, was a longtime late-night fixture in Chicago. All I know is that two of my best buddies in college spent four years with me honing exactly these type of skills, improvising and then writing/performing - John C Reilly and Phil Ridarelli. While John went off to make films fairly quickly after school, Phil worked hard for years with the original Neo Futurist members to turn "Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind" into the thoughtful, yet funny and exciting theater experience it was. “Too Much Light” went on to become the longest running theatre- production in Chicago’s history and became an iconic piece of our pop culture. Though the new show could very well be just as unique and exciting (and I do look forward to seeing what it will develop into), I’ll certainly miss Phil and some of those older members. 

That said, the new troupe has an energy all their own. The topics of the plays were more political in nature, which I liked. For example, one consisted of an actor writing DECENCY at one end of a thirty-foot-long chalkboard then drawing a LONG line to the words CHILD RAPE, finally drawing a line below the word CHILD RAPE that points to the word BREITBART, comparing the publication to that dark side of the spectrum, which was quite funny. 

The Infinite Wrench creates a team atmosphere, each guest receiving a name tag with a color upon walking into the theatre. Teams are decided by the color designated and get to decide the next play by yelling out their color when the actors say “Next” at the end of their sketch. Five stations each of different colors (red, blue, green, pink, and yellow) hold five plays that are randomly selected by the actor after running towards the color the actors hear first. But the overall goal is to complete thirty plays in sixty minutes, a timer set just after the actors explain the rules to the audience. 

Each play varies in content and could come in the form of monologues, musical numbers and/or group sketches, some being silly-funny (First Man on the Moon) while some poignant and some perhaps a bit nonsensical. The audience is warned by the actors that all plays, inspired by something they have experienced, might not be as funny when acted out as they may have been while writing them. If such is the case, the play is scrapped and a new one reworked into the next show though new plays are worked in weekly regardless. Each play introduced into the show is written by one of the performing actors.  

The Infinite Wrench has big shoes to fill in replacing such a popular Chicago theatre pastime that has actually created its own cult-like following. After watching the show in its opening weekend and seeing the highly-animated actors go to work and the material that was so well presented, but especially noting the positive crowd reaction, I am quite sure the Neo-Futurist tradition will carry on, seamlessly. 

I LOVE the way the actors involve the audience throughout the entire show. I have been asked onstage to play the piano, I have shouted out the word PINK at inappropriate moments to huge laughs. The Neo-Futurists offer a very special and freewheeling, uniquely Chicagoan, way of viewing theater. 

There are often performer antics taking place in the lobby before and after the show, and are low-priced snacks at the end of the Hall of Presidents entryway enroute to the theatre itself. 

Should this new, and very talented, cast keep the heart in what they’re doing, as did The Neo-Futurists in the past, The Infinite Wrench will continue to run for another twenty-eight years. The creative production team and actors include Kurt Chiang, Trevor Dawkins, Nick Hart, Jeewon Kim, Kirsten Riiber, Malic White, Ida Cuttler, Tif Harrison, Dan Kerr-Hobert, Lily Mooney and Leah Urzendowski Courser.  

Where does the name come from?

As mentioned on the Neo-Futurists home page for the show - The title of our show The Infinite Wrench is partly inspired by text from Mina Loy’s “Feminist Manifesto” (1914). Loy was briefly associated with the original Italian Futurists, and wrote her manifesto in response to some of the group’s establishing principles.

If you are disabled or have a hard time walking, please note the theatre is not wheelchair accessible and that climbing a flight of stairs is necessary to enter the theatre. However, they do honor accessibility requests and offer to assist the best they can. To find out more about making an accessibility request, click here.  

The price is right and even paying to get in is part of the fun. Tickets are just $9 plus a role of the dice that add an extra $2-$12. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 11:30 p.m. and Sundays at 7:00 p.m. For more show information, click here

 

 

I thoroughly enjoyed the world premiere of Jesus the Jew: As Told by His Brother James. The play is the seventeenth work produced by Forum Productions. The one-man show by playwright William Spatz is very well-written and in my opinion contains some of the answers of the most important issues facing our society today with regards to antisemitism and the violence propagated against Christians and or Jewish Christians in this country and others around the world. 

 

Actor, Steven Strafford plays a modern-day professor of religious history who has just found out his brother John has been tortured and killed in an attack in Syria. He then travels back and forth in time to portray James, the brother of Jesus, one of the mainstays of his research. Strafford's performance is compelling and rich. 

 

Jeremy, as James thanks the audience for coming whether they are Jews, Christians or Jewish Christians. This designation is very important especially in the political climate currently where all three groups are regularly singled out in some countries and sentenced to death by beheading if they do not renounce their Christian and/or Jewish ties. 

 

This play is of particular interest to me because I am a Jewish Christian or Messianic Jew. That is a person who is Jewish by birth who continues to believe that Jesus was Jewish and was the Messiah sent to save the Jewish people and later the non-Jews from the belief that we are just helpless animal-like human beings in bodies which have no actual active spiritual life that continues after death of the human body. We also believe that God is a loving forgiving being that abhors killing of humans and animals, indeed cruelty to women and all living things. 

 

I was given a very complete three-year education in Jewish history and religious practices before completing my bat mitzvah and the only mention of Jesus, if any that I recall, was that Jesus was to be looked at as a Rabbi gone mad - a religious traitor to the Jewish people whose new ideas threatened to destroy Judaism rather than elevate it to new levels of generosity and higher spiritual intelligence. I have often wondered how the separation of Jesus' Jewish birth and the statement he made regarding incarnating in a human body specifically for the Jewish people turned into an entirely new religion called Christianity – a religion that proceeded to make a scapegoat of the Jews when Roman occupation and laws actually caused the killing of Jesus. I've also wondered how Christians and especially Catholics who - on the one hand - give great honor to Mary, Jesus' mother, seem to have completely forgotten the fact that Mary the Mother of God was a JEWISH woman named Miriam. And how can modern Christians continue to refer with reverence to the Gospels written by Jesus' disciples as inspired by God without recalling that ALL the disciples of Jesus were JEWISH?

 

James’ finally answers this question in the last hours of his life in the play when he is about to be put to death (after 30 years of leading Jewish Christians) for not renouncing his brother's and his own Jewish faith. 

 

The apostle Paul is well known among feminists for his damning letters stating that women should have no place in the new Church and should be subject to all the discrimination that Jesus himself stressed many times should end by interacting with women, healing them and insisting that they receive the same education his male apostles were receiving. During this council, the apostle Paul effectively overthrew James’ leadership by declaring a new law that if a Jewish person believed in Jesus they must stop all Jewish religious practices and laws or be sentenced to death.

 

Jeremy as James also made it clear that Mary was from a wealthy family and financially supported Jesus and, by extension, financially supported many of the apostles that followed Jesus. Mary Magdalene was NOT by any stretch of the sexist imagination a "prostitute" as many since have claimed. 

 

James states that Jesus and Mary were indeed married per the Jewish tradition and although it was not brought up in this play, their marriage gives some credence to the theory that Mary Magdalene, Jesus' legal wife, gave birth to a daughter after his death, directly continuing the spiritually royal bloodline of Jesus himself. It’s been said that she and her daughter were escorted to safety by her father and sailed to France to raise her daughter.

 

There is some humor in the play when James says, “Lots of Jewish mothers think their sons can walk on water, but in this case…”

 

The production team includes: Milo Blue (scenic design), Hailey Rakowiecki (costume design), David Trudeau (lighting design), Alex Kleiner (sound design), Ron Rude (production manager) and Sarah Knoke (stage manager). This team does a great job decorating the set with objects of art from both modern and ancient times. The interesting props keep one’s eyes busy looking at the beautiful colorful aspects of that historic period while keeping the audience firmly in the present with offstage interruptions by reporters seeking interviews with him and friends or family who are trying to help Jeremy stay calm and sane in the face of the news that his brother has been tortured first then killed. 

 

Jesus The Jew delivers the most important message of our time, that the division of Jews from Christians and the division of Jesus from his own Jewish followers and people came from a political move - a political document written to serve the Romans and the ambitions of one aggressive sect of new Christians/Jews led by the apostle Paul. 

 

My only complaint about the well-written and well-documented play is that it does not delve deep enough into the horrors and centuries of suffering that this rift initiated by the apostle Paul caused. Actually using the word “horror” is inadequate to describe the current situation for both Christians and Jewish Christians - the Holocaust or recent be-headings of Christians and Jewish Christians around the world and the suffering of women subject to the new rules of Bible thumping-Jew hating Christians who have been forced to follow their husband’s commands even under extreme abuse. 

 

James even acknowledges that as he gives his last sermon before he is put to death that there may not be any Jewish Christians left to hear his final pleas for a meaningful, literal and political reunion of the Jewish and Christian people. That strongly resonated with me because I am the ONLY Jewish Christian that I have ever met (other than my mother who had a similar late life realization) who sees Jesus as a Jewish Rabbi and miracle maker of the highest order, the human incarnation of God on earth.

 

I highly recommend this compelling, well-paced and delicately handled theater piece for anyone who is interested in a more realistic view of daily life during Jesus' time, or is seeking similar comfort that Jewish Christians still actually exist. 

 

Jesus the Jew: As Told by his Brother James is being performed at Greenhouse Theater Center through March 26th. For more information on this show, click here.

 

Two girlfriends grow up in Mississippi, one wants to be a hairdresser to the stars and the other a singing star in her own right. An opportunity to run their own beauty shop binds the two friends together for life, and helps a South Side Chicago neighborhood maintain a sense of community and safety, even a little glamour, that is until Starbucks and other corporations start moving into the neighborhood. Beautifully directed, A Wonder in My Soul is the heartfelt journey of two best friends who have shared a beauty salon for over three decades.

 

Aberdeen "Birdie" Calumet (Greta Oglesby) and Bell Grand Lake (Jacqueline Williams) play the two close friends and both do an amazing job with long speeches that could be coming out of the mouths of preachers. The audience even lets out a few, “go girls”, and “praise Gods” as if we are sitting in a church. In a way, their beauty shop, which once served some celebrity visitors, has stood for forty years as a type of church to the women of the neighborhood. A place where they can talk and be themselves where their best customer, a rich woman who prefers to be called “First Lady” (a fantastic Linda Bright Clay), who spends at least three afternoons a week just trying new hairdos to hang out at the salon to have company and help each other with daily troubles. 

 

Marcus Gardley's script creates very familiar and real characters, and utilizes the beautiful singing voices of young Birdie (Camille Robinson) and young Bell (Donica Lynn) in a way that vitalizes and makes real the talents and determination underneath the tough facade of these hard working, loving women. 

 

This play is about change and gentrification, and growth and strength. Change isn't always but a bad thing but A Wonder in My Soul pulls back the curtain on how gentrification affects this "family" of women and their whole neighborhood that tries to save the salon. Is it fair that the neighborhood rallies to save the community staple only for a Starbucks to ultimately knock them down as easily as a cannon ball would a bowling pin? No. But the way each woman chooses to go on with her life and keep the bitterness from affecting the wonder in their souls is truly inspiring. 

 

Highly recommended for satisfying, humorous and heartwarming performances, especially by Jacqueline Williams as the down, but not out, captain of her sinking ship.

 

Williams speeches about life and the value of struggling to keep some history and classiness intact in the neighborhood, which is being brought down by violence and greed, ripple through the audience with a deep resonance and truthfulness that the talented actor brings to all her stage work.

 

A Wonder in My Soul is being performed at Victory Gardens Theater through March 12th. Go to www.VictoryGardens.org for more show information.

 

Wow! Get ready to be entertained and blown away by two men, with eighteen, yes eighteen, costume changes in a 105-minute play with lead mother figure Bertha Bumiller played by Anthony Whitaker in drag and Grant Drager playing most of the younger male and female characters (Arles, Didi, Stanley, Charlene, Jodi, Petey, Vera and Dixie). These two talents make for one hilarious and yet, at times, disturbing piece of theater now that Trump is President and the animal and human cruelty is perpetrated against each person who loves in the “the third smallest town in Texas”, a dump “where the Lion’s Club is too liberal and Patsy Cline never died.”

 

As announced on the local radio show the winning school essays include “Human Rights—Why Bother?” and “The Other Side of Bigotry”. And so begins Deep in the Heart of Tuna, the latest in the “Tuna” series, currently running at Pride Arts Center in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood.

 

I was unaware that adapter Ed Howard and original author-performers Joe Sears and Jaston Williams (Greater Tuna, A Tuna Christmas, and Red, White, and Tuna) had revived this new play from pieces of the trilogy above though it didn't affect my understanding of the hard lives these people live while having little money to keep up with their neighbors. People wearing third generation hand me downs and living on a farm-like house where the youngest and most sensitive son has ten dogs and a few kitty cats literally following him to school and back until he can find them adoption homes.  

 

I found the staging and lighting brilliant with audience members on both sides of the intimate theater performing space, putting us right in Bertha’s kitchen. Adding the finishing touch, are the costumes and wigs which are truly amazing and used to their ultimate. When I found that neither actor had a dresser to help them make these quick changes, I was even more impressed. Still knowing there were only two cast members, they played the men and women so touchingly and realistically funny, I could have sworn there was a cast of five people or more hidden in the wings. 

 

The town of Tuna can sometimes be a scary place where the "smut snatchers" a local anti-porn group try to expose the dirty words in Dickens Christmas Carol, including "God Rest Ye Merry Gentleman", because you know, "Merry Gentlemen" is a little too close to gay gentleman in Tuna, Texas. 

 

The smut snatchers are busy cutting apart the children’s' Christmas pageant, which they have worked on for months. It is eventually canceled by the local school official and local government because the school does not have the funds to pay its electric bill, despite pleas to let the children perform, in part because one child needs this performance to complete his reform school probation and leave town without a criminal record (for painting over street signs). The lights are shut off and the show does not go on. At the same time a Christmas Phantom is on the loose in the neighborhood destroying outdoor holiday displays. There’s a lot going on in this small town. 

 

Anthony Whitaker's multilayered characterization of the mother figure as she struggles to make ends meet in this piece reminds me so much of my dear friend Louie Anderson's spectacular mother characterization in his new hit show "Baskets". 

 

Grant Drager, a newcomer to the New American Folk Theatre ensemble, plays the rest of the male and female characters with mind blowing accuracy and such poignancy. For his outstanding work in this two-man show, Drager really is deserving of a Jeff Award, as well as Whitaker.

 

Though many of the characters are run-of-the-mill, low-income Southern folks with seemingly good hearts, at times, the extreme stereotype Texas hard core right wingers are also demonstrated in the play. It's mind boggling that the small-mindedness of the latter mentioned characters of this tiny town exist in real life, boasting about and bringing forth soul crushing ideas along with anti-gay sentiments and anti-animal rights, i.e. and "Tuna" takes a few good shots. A great line that represents that type of mentality in this play is when Didi, who runs the local gun shop for her mother, says, "If we don't have a gun (or poison) to kill what you want, that thing is supernatural!" This show can make great but serious fun of that particular group on a few occasions though it mainly celebrates small town warmth, kindness and simplicity. Though "Tuna" often pokes fun of small town life in the South, it is done with affection, actually endearing us to several of the characters even more so.  

 

This satire of rural life is highly recommended for two of the most versatile and thought provoking performances in this play about a dysfunctional family and the small town problems that arise. Directed by Derek Van Barham, New American Folk Theatre's Deep in the Heart of Tuna is being performed at Pride Arts Center through March 5th. For show information or tickets, click here. Y'all hurry now!

 

 

The Bodyguard, The Musical begins with a bang!  Literally, the unexpected sound of gunshots combined with great strobe lighting effects made me (along with most of the audience) scream with delight and jump out of our seats!

 

I enjoyed this show from beginning to end with a strong starring lead in Deborah Cox and a very strong supporting cast of actors and dancers. I am a fan, though not a cult fan, of the 1992 movie The Bodyguard starring Whitney Houston and Kevin Costner. Although I wasn't a Whitney Houston music fan per say, I have admired her amazing and formidable vocal talent as much as anyone else who has ever heard her sing. 

 

If you haven’t seen the movie from which this musical is based, it is the story of a successful music icon (Rachel Marron) who receives a string of death threats from an obsessed fan leading to the hiring of a bodyguard, Frank Farmer, who is taken on by the singer and her staff with a reluctant acquiescence at first. Frank comes with some baggage, but the former secret service man is good at what he does – very good. Frank quickly takes over security detail for the star and her ten-year-old son Fletcher. As the story progresses, the threats become more and more bizarre, the danger ever-increasing.  

 

I agree with the choice not to write any songs for Kevin Costner's character, played with super cool Costner-esque aloofness by Judson Mills, probably because it was just too hard to try to create any material for him that could compare with the huge and much beloved hits Whitney produced on the soundtrack for the film like “Greatest Love of All”, “I Wanna Dance with Somebody”, “Run to You”, “Saving All My Love”, and “One Moment in Time”. 

 

Ironically, since that time Kevin Costner has become a professional singer/musician with his band Kevin Costner and Modern West, and although his band has played to audiences both large and small around the world - this is a fact many might not know. 

 

Yes, Judson seemed a little stiff in the role but I feel like he did his best to project a strong silent sexy type written for the subtlety of film then translated to a very large theater stage. There were a lot of pregnant pauses in his speech, but I think the writers could have added more humor and dialogue to his role as Frank Farmer to even out the fact that it is a musical in which he is the lead and does not get to sing. There was one really good laugh - not sure of it was intentional - but as we see Rachel slip out of the bed after her first night with Frank and he lays there still asleep, she immediately begins singing these lines from Whitney’s hit “All the Man That I Need”: 

 

“He fills me up 

He gives me love 

More love than I've ever seen 

He's all I've got” 

 

Rachel Marron played by Deborah Cox was absolutely spot on with the Whitney Houston songs thanks to her incredible voice. I really could have listened to her and Jasmin Richardson who played Rachel's little sister Nikki Marron sing Houston's hit all night, as they are both such amazing vocalists. Douglas Baldeo also does an incredible job as Rachel’s son, Fletcher. Baldeo has an amazing future ahead of him, the child actor displaying boundless vocal range and dancing his way into the hearts of theatre goers. One of the play's most touching moments centered around a beautiful rendition of "Jesus Loves Me" performed by Cox, Richardson and Baldeo when Farmer hid the family at his father's cabin in the country.

 

It was a fun and entertaining idea to use the film as the basis for this musical. The whole point of Frank Farmer's entrance and brief love affair in the movie was to teach Rachel that she is undervaluing her own well-being and safety by refusing to let a bodyguard change her way of life.

 

Frank Farmer is the sexy, masculine protective glass picture frame through which we get to admire, to actually magnify Rachel’s great beauty and talent. It is realized just how important protection is needed of a woman so gifted to her family and to the public - her adoring fans. 

 

Kevin Costner fought to get Houston cast in the role at a time when an interracial relationship was a much more risqué subject. Thanks to his persistence we have the classic that exists today and its current stage version.

 

Every time I heard Deborah Cox' wonderful voice ring out with Houston's trademark magnificence, I wished the real Whitney Houston had found a "bodyguard" to watch over her own short life. It is a tragic spin that a strong, down to earth man like Frank Farmer may have protected her and kept her from the fast track of drugs and non-stop pressure to produce hits. Whitney Houston might still be with us today.

 

Highly recommended as a fun date show and must see for any Whitney Houston fans. The Bodyguard is being performed at Oriental Theatre through February 12th. For more information on this exciting show, click here

 

As I found my seat in the very intimate forty-seat or so Red Curtain Theater in First Congregational Church House to see Robert Harling's popular American classic Steel Magnolias, made popular by the movie starring Julia Roberts, I was very drawn in immediately by Mark Boergers' set design which places audience members on both sides of the action facing each other, so close you feel you are waiting for your own hair appointment in the super friendly and inclusive Truvy's Beauty Salon in Chinquapin, Louisiana.

 

Directed by Artistic Director Mark Boergers, all six members of this truly ensemble piece get an equal chance to shine and show the particular strengths and challenges each of these extraordinary women are facing. The multi-racial casting was extremely effective and believable. Each of these women, some rich, some poor, some single and some married, or about to be, really work together in an organic and wonderful way to create a world any woman can identify with at every stage of her life.  

 

Usually, I point out members of the cast who stand out but in this case ALL of the cast stand out, some with their biting humor like Nicholia Q. Aguirre as Clairee, whose late husband was mayor of Chinquapin, and Meg Elliott as Ousier who owns an outstanding sense of comic timing! Lucy Sandy as Truvy, the owner is a calm yet very funny, motherly anchor of the beauty salon she built in her own garage to support her husband. 

 

Brooklyn Hebert is lovely in the role of Shelby who is getting her hair done for her wedding day as the play opens. Natalie Sallee plays Shelby's mother M'Lynn really brings home the tears as the danger of diabetes threatens her daughter's happy, yet fragile, life dealing with the disease before and after childbirth. As the young Annelle, a young new beautician who has arrived recently in this small town with an abusive, perhaps criminal, boyfriend who deserts her Nikkia Tyler is very effective also, as we see her clinging to these new friendships and her newfound trust in God, and the church - while literally on the verge of homelessness.

 

Although Harling’s script is considered a flawless classic, these six strong characters in such a small, realistic, almost threadbare set take the show to new levels of humor and sensitivity, which leave one wondering why the Hollywood film itself wasn't cast multi-racially as well. 

 

I highly endorse this bright, new production to anyone who has seen or not seen and enjoyed the film or play before, as this ensemble directed by Mark Boergers offers up a refreshing and fulfilling vision of the original play that women and the men who love them can all identify with easily. Along with this excellent cast of trained actors the audience can learn firsthand about being strong as steel when necessary and laughing like children when it seems like all that's left to do is cry.  

 

The Arc Theatre’s Steel Magnolias is being performed at the Red Curtain Theater at the First Congregational Church House in Evanston through February 12th. For tickets and more show info, click here.

 

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

 

When Mitchell Fain, the star of David Sedaris's eight year long run of "Santaland Diaries" about a broke actor who lands a gig as a Macy's elf first begins his play with the opening lines of said show on a beautifully decked out and magically lit Christmas set - I thought, "Wait a minute I've seen this show already!” 

 

Quickly, Fain drops the character of Sedaris' Crumpet and becomes the character of Mitchell Fain in one of the most personal and entertaining one man shows I've seen in a long time, “This Way Outta Santaland”, written by Fain himself.

 

Fain is joined at Theater Wit by his old friend and roommate from years ago, the beautiful red headed Megan Murphy whose work I have enjoyed many times in many of the Marriott and Drury Lane Musical Theater Series. Also, playing the music for his monologues and Murphy's segue way songs is Julie B. Nichols, an excellent pianist who began the show with a hearty toast to which the whole audience raised their cups!

 

Mitchell really interacts with the audience and brings up the houselights many times as if trying to really see and relate to each person who came out in the cold Chicago weather to see his show. Fain begins by asking how many in the audience came from Chicago from a smaller place to live, and many raised their hands, including me (Miami is smaller). Some just shouted out “Ohio!” “Arkansas!”

 

He asked one woman WHY she came here and her reply was "to be an actress" to which he ad-libbed "How's that working out for you?"  Her reply got a big laugh, "Well I'm sitting in the audience not on the stage!" 

 

Then he asked how many of you here are Jewish?

 

Only me and two others in the packed house raised our hands which surprised even me!

 

Fain begins his storytelling with his rocky childhood in Rhode Island as one of the only Jews in a very rough all Italian neighborhood, and a petite, 5'3" gay Jew at that! 

 

Fain recalls that from a very young age he loved Judy Garland's music and especially memorized her version of the song “Chicago (That Toddlin’ Town)”, which allows Megan Murphy to deliver a delicious, tongue in cheek version of the song herself. 

 

In Fain’s description of his former home base, we learn that Rhode Island is the costume jewelry capital of America and that most of its inhabitants, including his single mother, toiled their lives away in these factories. Fain's mother found a way to work at one place long enough to get unemployment payments just to put food on the table and barely eke out a living, each time succumbing to the rigors of factory's physical demands which caused illness's like carpal tunnel syndrome and swollen feet. 

 

Mitchell then talks about his move to Chicago as being a move to the BIG CITY! Fortunately, he had a wonderful Christmas loving aunt, who was very generous with him and decorated her house magically each year. He brings up the irony that I have always felt as a Jew as well - that Jews actually appreciate Christmas and the whole glamorous lighting and decorations of Christmas because we never had them as children.

 

In one of the most meaningful moments for me he describes how people who gripe about having to fly home for the holidays are forgetting how LUCKY they are to have a place to go to (he had none) , how lucky they are to have people who love them enough to want them to come home and also lucky enough to have the MEANS , the money to get home, which most of the time, many actors do not. 

 

We are introduced to the story of his mother's passing in Phoenix when he reveals that during his eight great years playing Crumpet, he only missed two performances - once when he was almost hospitalized for the flu, but that he did not miss a show when his mother died. Fain received the call that his mother was dying right after performing his Sunday show but did not have enough money for a last-minute airline ticket to Phoenix and so his kind Chicago theatre family helped him raise the money to catch a red eye. Mitchell did get to Phoenix in time to say goodbye to his mother and said as he finally arrived at her bedside, and asked how she was doing, that one single tear rolled down her cheek – a tear he recognized as “Uh oh, Mitchell’s here. This must be bad”, rather than a tear that loving Mitchell was at his dying mother’s bedside. 

 

Fain and his siblings had to make the terrible decision to remove life support just as their mother clung to life just a little while longer, recovering well enough to be moved to hospice. But soon the inevitable took place and she passed away.

 

The comedy of errors began when the three siblings rush to get her cremated as is the Jewish tradition and are faced with a crummy mortician picked out of the phone book by Fain’s oldest brother. When they opened the comically large doors, the place reeked of smoke, death and CVS perfume, Fain tells us. The funeral director was crabby, short and constantly reminding the Fain’s how backed up they were before going into a relentless pitch for the family to purchase a casket, which was not in their plans remotely. Mitchell then asked to be directed to the washroom and was told the door to find just down the hall. After passing one door after another he passed an open room where his mother was laid out on a slab fully naked. Mitchell lost it, returning the tell the director he’d like to punch him in the nose. He then demanded that she get the paperwork in order for a cremation before he finishes his cigarette, then rushes outside for a cigarette - even though he doesn't smoke. 

 

Fain's siblings rush out to see if he was okay and, as he told the story of what had just happened, enjoyed a laugh together, the kind of laugh only those in mourning can appreciate when they all realize this crazy situation is the "most fun they have had with their mother in a long time". 

 

As a Jew who moved to Chicago from Miami Florida in the 80's after visiting my mother's side of the family at Christmastime, longing to experience the miracles of snow and seasonal changes and well, Christmas itself, I felt many connections to Mitchell's tales about his life in the city.

 

The Chicago theater scene with all its faults really is wonderful and is different from any other city like Los Angeles or New York in its BIG smallness, including how the poverty of actors and artists living in cheap studios, all of us totally broke for years on end paying off student loans forever. But through it all we eventually yield lifelong friendships, friendships that have become an extended family for us that no other BIG city would have fostered. And just like we learn in the inscription in George Bailey’s book at the end of It’s A Wonderful Life – “No man is a failure who has friends.” 

 

It seems playing the role in the award-winning writer David Sedaris's play for so long has rubbed off on Fain because in “This Way Outta Santaland (and other X Mas Miracles)”, Fain has written another play, also deserving of many awards, which for a Jew from the mean streets of Rhode Island is a Christmas miracle of its own! 

 

Fain is a true delight! Be sure to catch “This Way Outta Santaland” during its run through December 23rd for a warm, humorous and uniquely delivered show that features tremendous storytelling and wonderful music. To find out more about performance times and show information, visit www.TheaterWit.org.

 

Do you remember the holiday spectacular TV specials in the early 1980's? I do. They were a wacko mix of old timey singing groups mixed with the “hottest” stars of the day and all were decked out stage-wise in cheerful, colorful and yet, in retrospect, disturbing fake Christmas sets.

Just in time for our election bruised souls here comes the grandmammy of Christmas Spectaculars to our emotional rescue! Hell in a Handbag’s “The Rip Nelson Holiday Spectacular” is just the anecdote.

Ed Jones stars as Rip Nelson taking over at the eleventh hour for the host Paul Lynde who has just passed away. Ed Jones is absolutely hands down the most talented yet somehow unknown comedic actor in Chicago today and just takes the role and runs with it. Jones always manages to take whatever character he is given, leading or supporting, and gets a laugh and/or tear out of every little line and gesture having the same effect throughout this terrifically funny ninety-minute extravaganza of camp delight.

Fresh out of the Betty Ford Clinic for the seventh time, Rip Nelson declares "Betty Ford's eyes turn to dollar signs when she sees me."

As was the fashion on those days, a Holiday special usually joined together a WIDE variety of well-known variety stars, in this case, Rip Nelson gets to play host to  Patti LaBelle (RoBert Williams), Liza Minnelli (Alexa Castelvecchi), magician Doug Henning ( David Lipschutz), Bruce Jenner (Chazie Bly), rival girl groups The Lennon Sisters (AJ Wright, Anna Seiburt and Kristopher Bottrall) and the King Cousins (Terry McCarthy, Grant Drager and Adrian Hadlock) and, finally, Rip's ex-lover Dom DeLuise who we learn was a dear lover of Rip's who left him for a woman, having children in order to  stay in the closet. 

The show is a riotous camp-fest of the early 1980's Christmas specials, yet as funny the pokes to the era and characters, it also carries a strong tribute to such. Underneath, is a warm reminder of an amazing period like no other. 

Now one by one, the supporting cast need some special mentions. 

Patti LaBelle played by RoBert Williams brings down the house with her vocally superb and emotionally resonant rendition of Cats’ “Memories" along with Jones. 

Liza Minnelli played beautifully by Alexa Castelvecchi is the most lovely and convincing Liza Minnelli I've seen on the stage - ever!  And I've had the pleasure of seeing the real Liza perform in Miami Florida twenty years ago. When Castelvecchi sings "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" shortly after trashing Rip's dressing room while looking for cocaine, it is with true vocal chops that she brings a happy yet warmly melancholic tear to everyone in the audience.

Doug Henning played by David Lipschutz has just the same amount of crazy-eyed optimism and skinny, ball bearing costumes that made me flash back hysterically to that time period in entertainment every time he was on stage. Lipschutz delivers a spot-on imitation of Henning that made me laugh nonstop every time I looked at his starry-eyed glazed smile. 

Gladys, the longtime faithful hair stylist and makeup artist for Rip played by Lori Lee has a big warm and genuine way of taking each moment or turning point as it occurs to Rip and translating it into a real sweet message that subtly weaves the whole play together like a ball of knitting yarn left over for the stringing of popcorn ornaments by your favorite aunt. 

All the members of each girl group made a fun-tastically ensemble for each big dance and song number while Dom Deluise keeps us laughing and routed in the year 1982. Also, Bly as Bruce Jenner delivers another spot-on laugh riot with his red nylon short shorts and overly-emphatic delivered lines. 

I'm not sure how David Cerda, writer and Artistic Director of Hell in a Handbag Productions does it. The costumes and casting are always top notch, the singers can REALLY sing and the dancers can REALLY dance. Cerda has a way of injecting each of his scripts with both the strongest parts of each character with the weakest most vulnerable, loser parts to create a world of self-empowerment both funny and full of pathos that anyone our age who has seen a few dreams come and go can really appreciate. 

In Ed Jones as Rip Nelson, we relate to his struggle NOT to start drinking again while under the most pressurized job of his life we all see ourselves. Faded glories of what we hoped we'd be, yet with new possibilities opening right before our eyes, if we can only hang in there and believe in ourselves long enough. 

There were also a couple of really fun appearances by Kermit the Frog, which in the 80's was de rigueur to suddenly have a puppet "star" appear on a TV show as well. 

The finale song by Kermit and the cast which tries to reconcile the Santa Claus view of Christmas, a fantasy of consumerism gone mad and the Jesus Christ is the "reason for the season" view, culminates in an urgent and heartfelt wish that someday the two views of Christmas will finally make sense and be as ONE - of a happy Christmas time.

I highly recommend this adorable, funny, PARTAY for the senses that will start your Holiday Season with a wet sloppy kiss, a big warm hug and pat on the ass to keep on keepin’ on! 

The Rip Nelson Holiday Spectacular is being performed at Mary’s Attic in Andersonville through December 30th. For tickets and/or more show information visit http://www.handbagproductions.org/. 

 

 

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