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
True gamers, especially nostalgic ones, will appreciate The New Colony’s world premiere of Merge. Closing out its 2016 season, this 90-minute, fast-paced, and often funny, performance at the Den Theatre’s Upstairs Main Stage spotlights the roller-coaster history of Atari, a pioneer manufacturer of video arcade games.
Written by Spenser Davis and directed by Andrew Hobgood, Merge provides an inside look at the tumultuous ups and downs of the video game company from its start in the early 1970's.
The script is Davis’ first original full-length play. Submitted through The New Colony’s writers program, it made quite an impression on company members. “Merge was the rare instance of a story flying off the page with such ferocity that Andrew and I needed to get our ensemble in the room immediately,” said Co-Artistic Director Evan Linder. “Spenser Davis’ hilarious and insightful script will welcome onstage the largest cast The New Colony has assembled since our first season.”
Despite the size, Hobgood’s staging of the huge 16-member cast in such a small space was mostly effective. However, at times, when the full cast was onstage, the fast-talking and screaming could be a bit overwhelming.
The set design was one of the biggest stars of this production with a video arcade cabinet as the backdrop along with a bright neon color scheme.
The opening action starts in the late 70's around the time Atari, hugely successful with its arcade and home console video games but cash-strapped, merged with Warner Bros. Atari employees are frazzled by the corporate takeover and the impact ricochets throughout the company as key players leave. Pot smoking, Jacuzzi parties and eccentric behaviors had fueled Atari’s workplace during its rise. When they have to sell to Warner Bros. to stay afloat, along with the influx of corporate cash comes corporate structure and new requirements, including wearing socks.
The use of the flashback technique and flexible, moving set pieces allow the action to flow seamlessly back through time as the audience is quickly introduced to Atari co-founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. Like a video game version of the odd couple, these two opposite personalities are behind one of the fastest growing companies in America.
Their different styles, business philosophy, especially on how to handle lawsuits from competition, and Bushnell’s hard-driving ambition, eventually force Dabney out of the company. Ironically Bushnell himself is ousted as CEO after the Warner Bros. merger, paving the way for a more straight-laced chief in Stuart Nygard. It was this move that prompted many of the remaining programmers who had been with Atari from the beginning to jump ship and align with a competing company.
In one of the more fascinating, yet somewhat out-of-place scenes, a courtroom battle that feels more like an episode of “Wild ‘N Out” ensues between Warner Bros. and that rival. Dabney returns at a pivotal moment providing information that will not only have long-lasting repercussions for Warner Bros. but the video game industry as a whole.
Merge is creative and fun and packs a lot of history in 90 minutes. A huge and high-energy cast and creative staging keep the story moving in a compelling fashion.
Merge is now playing at The Den Theatre’s Upstairs Main Stage through November 13, 2016. Tickets are available at www.thenewcolony.org.
Earlier this year, The New Colony in collaboration with Definition Theatre, produced a smash hit called 'Byhalia, Mississippi.' The New Colony has done a great deal to insert themselves into the Chicago theater landscape over the past few years. Some of their work has even appeared off-Broadway, as was the case with their acclaimed show 'Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche.' What the New Colony is perhaps best known for is their commitment to taking chances on quirky new work from emerging playwrights.
'Byhalia, Mississippi' is about one of the most 'Jerry Springer' scenarios you can imagine. A married white woman, Laurel (Liz Sharpe), gives birth to a black baby in the rural deep south. What could easily descend into a hillbilly soap opera is heightened by a strong theme on the way seemingly decent people handle race. Performances run strong in 'Byhalia, Mississippi' in particular Celeste Wingate as Laurel's mother and Kiki Layne as her childhood best friend. It has a sharp sense of humor when it needs to, but also enough structure in place to carry its complex ideas.
This new play by New Colony artistic director Evan Linder has some serious legs. After a sold-out run at The Den, 'Byhalia, Mississippi' is now being put up at one of Chicago's most esteemed and visible houses. It will certainly be noticed. While a certain degree of cheekiness runs throughout, the playwright is careful not to make his characters cartoonish. There are a few juvenile moments that tend to stick out like a sore thumb, but in time, some of that roughness will surely be smoothed out. This is not a play about infidelity. This is a play about the way people in some parts of America handle race and gender. To that end, this play couldn’t be more relevant. It wouldn’t be a surprise to see 'Byhalia, Mississippi' mounted in New York some time soon.
Through August 21st at Steppenwolf Theater, 1650 N Halsted St. 312-335-1650
Who’s to say how we each should be identified? Whether labeled as a man, woman or even a dragon, those are in fact just that – labels. So why should others tell us how we ought to perceive ourselves? That premise is the foundation in New Colony’s latest production “Kin Folk”, currently being performed at The Den Theatre in Wicker Park. “Kin Folk” is a well-taught lesson on becoming comfortable in our own skin without being influenced towards self-doubt by those who are quick to tell us what we should be.
After losing their parents, three sisters, Lucy, Eleanor and Mary, gather at their suburban family home while waiting for it to sell. Sitting around a dining room table, each mulls about the future. Eleanor discuss her new life as a newly transitioned woman while Lucy and her husband Toby talk of plans to move to Chicago. Toby wants to move near his church where he can become more involved, often inviting Eleanor to his progressive place of worship that doesn’t care who uses what washroom. The talk is light, the banter pleasant and nothing that is really out of the ordinary.
However, the story takes a big turn when, unknown to the rest of the group, it is discovered that Lucy belongs to a community called Otherkin. Otherkin is a group that encourages people to live as their “true self”, identifying as magical creatures such as a dragon, which Lucy declares herself to be. Lucy, now known as Kreeka, befriends Atherin who leads her to meet Blubberwort, a giant gnome who helps guide her even further down her path of self-actualization. She eventually meets a werewolf named Dusk via a community chat room with whom she instantly clicks and quickly confides.
It’s not long before her family discovers her secret, leaving Lucy to make the tough decision of choosing them or her life with Otherkin. Or can she have both?
I really enjoyed the production’s overall theme and its flavor of humor. The journey is a fun one to watch, as the play is laced with the perfect measure of silliness while not going so far over the top that its message becomes diluted. In fact, it is an effective eye opener as to what people may feel inside but are afraid to state publicly. While Eleanor’s story is already compelling as she begins her new life as the woman she knows she has always been, the parallel story line of Kreeka, though a world recognizing themselves as non-human beings, only adds conviction to the fact that we are who we feel we are.
“Kin Folk” offers a lively cast that provides plenty of strong acting performances. Annie Prichard is just wonderful as Lucy/Kreeka and really gets to show off her comedic talent while Chris Fowler also delivers as Toby, displaying a well-rounded performance altogether. Vital components to the success of the show’s humor, Andrew Hobgood (Blubberwort) and Steve Love (Arethin) both get a lot of well-earned laughs in their roles as Otherkin Folk.
Evan Linder does a delightful job directing this play written by William Glick, nicely capturing the essence of each character while delivering Glick’s message with just the right mix of wit and sentiment, making this a summer event to add to your “must do” list. This is a play that is sure to bring out the genie, vampire, fairy or whatever it may be that surfaces within yourself.
“Kin Folk” is being performed at The Den Theatre through August 14th. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.thenewcolony.org.
The New Colony and Definition Theatre Company’s collaboration “Byhalia, Mississippi” opens up with a young white trash couple from the play’s titled town who are about to have their first child. The dialogue between the family is witty and sharp and you immediately feel like you are in the South. Overdue by two weeks, their baby is being stubborn as hell. Finally, he arrives – and he is black. With Byhalia’s racial narrow past, you can imagine that this is when the mood in the story drastically changes.
"Byhalia Mississppi" highlights many issues in racial relations especially found in the underlying comments many of the characters made. The couple, played by Liz Sharpe and Evan Linder, are very powerful and work well together. Linder also wrote the play - and it is very well written. There were times in which I felt uncomfortable as an audience member not only because of the topics being discussed but also by the overly dramatic acting of Mr. Linder, which, in retrospect, may have been called for to make his character “Jim” more believable. Remember, it is the South so I imagine they were using his excessive animation as an angle. Regardless, it was still distracting at times.
Besides bringing important racial and class issues to light, what I love about this play is that the theatre will be hosting a world premiere conversation on Monday, January 18th which is MLK day. The play will be premiering in seven cities across North America and the audiences will connect afterward to have a discussion. I have never heard of this before and I think it is well worth the two-hours of time to try and attend.
When reflecting on this play, I can't help but realize how far we have to go in regards to racism in this country. As an aunt of biracial nieces, I wonder what their world will be like. Will they struggle with their identity in having to choose one race over another? Will it even matter? My hope is no, but what I do know is that we have the power to make a difference now.
Catch the “Byhalia, Mississippi” at The Den Theatre now through February 14th. It is sure to strike up conversation about racism in America and, at the same time, leave you wanting to say "y'all." For tickets and/or more information visit www.thenewcolony.org.
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