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Kimberly Katz

Kimberly Katz

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/. 

 

 

Are you old enough to remember Saturday morning cartoons? I mean when there was no other place or time on TV to watch three hours of children's cartoon TV shows? Well, if you are, like me, you'll remember the "Scooby Doo" show whose lead character was a talking dog who rolled with the teenage mystery solvers from Mystery Inc. 

 

In "Skooby Don't" written by David Cerda, Artistic Director of the wonderful Hell In a Handbag Production Company, every hysterical aspect of the original show is poked at, like the fact that Scooby and his pal Shaggy both look and act like stoners the whole time and that the whole gang runs screaming in fear every time they finally confronted a ghost/monster.

 

But Cerda as always, takes a funny satire and turns it into a touching and even educational LGBTQ production that leaves the whole audience with something interesting and uplifting to ponder over long after they've left the theater. 

 

In order to stay safe of copyright laws the characters names have been slightly changed to even funnier names. Daphne is called Daffy played delightfully by ensemble member Elizabeth Lesinsky, smart and sassy Velma is now Velva (or “Vulva”) also very funnily played by Caitlin Jackson. I recently reviewed Ms. Jackson in her role as Bette Midler and she has an AMAZING singing voice as well. Fred is Fredd with two D’s, Shaggy becomes Scaggy and Scooby Doo trades in his “C” for a “K,” becoming Skooby and instead becomes “Don’t”. Cerda even jokes at one point about the subtle changes.

 

When Velva decides to take the whole gang to her aunt's house for a reunion vacation her aunt turns out to be Cher! Cher played by ensemble member Ed Jones is joined by two famous contemporary house guests Caitlyn Jenner (Chazie Bly), Kris Jenner (Cerda) and Cher’s disgruntled bellboy/son Chaz (Caitlin Boho). With this wild cast of characters only Cerda could put together, it doesn’t take long before a zany mystery ensues and the gang quickly becomes detectives.

 

This quartet of famous faces was absolutely a collection the funniest bits in the whole show. Ed Jones makes the BEST, funniest, tongue to lip touching Cher I have ever seen! David Cerda as Kris Jenner and Chazie Bly as Caitlynn Jenner have all the gestures and voice patterns down pat while Caitlin Boho who plays a plump, unshaven Chaz, had me laughing out loud with almost every single line she delivered. 

 

Kudos and credit must go to their AMAZING costumer Kate Setzer Kamphausen and Hell in a Handbag's wig master Keith Ryan because their makeup and hair fit EVERY character to a tee! 

 

People ask me why I enjoy Cerda's characters so much, enough to go to every production they put on without question and the reason is simple. They are always brilliantly funny. Add the fact that if these men and women can do such a great job of playing full on "dress up" and do it with such care and relish, it always makes me feel that SOMEONE else understands how hard it is to be a woman!

 

Cerda's characters don't make fun of women, they celebrate women and men of all kinds, sizes and shapes and even though they have to wear a lot of makeup, wigs and six inch heels they do it because they ENJOY doing all the things they associate with being women. David Cerda has a wonderful and blessed knack for creating female characters in his plays, even those beautiful women with "resting bitch face" - like his very popular Joan Crawford - to be  worthy of love and respect by the end of each show.

 

The entire cast including the supporting roles were dynamite. Cerda, Jones and Lesinsky just seems to get funnier and funnier with each production, this time capturing the precise essence of the vain and ditzy Daffy. In Skooby Don’t, Cerda puts forth yet another all-around stellar ensemble, perfectly casting the Mystery Gang and guest characters. 

 

I highly recommend this fun, campy yet sympathetic piece, which is kind of like a transgender Halloween party! Skooby Don’t is currently being performed at Mary’s Attic in Andersonville. For tickets, showtimes and more show information, visit www.Handbag productions.org.

As soon as you enter the beautiful set that designer Brian Sidney Bembridge, has created for “Life Sucks", you are tip-toeing through what feels like a real forest of delicately lit white birch trees in the light of early evening in Autumn. 

 

The action then proceeds mostly on the front porch, and dining room/kitchen of a quaint country style house, complete with a small dock and row boat mired in mud, to indicate this is the log cabin style home of someone wealthy enough to live on a lake but not doing well enough any longer to afford a real boat, which turns out to be true.  

 

The seven characters enter the stage with house lights up and immediately break the fourth wall by letting the audience know a few things about the play, it has four acts with one intermission, and asking insightful questions like, "Do you think people in a hundred years will care how hard we worked?" Which immediately reminded me of the old joke, "What's the opposite of a nymphomaniac?" with the punchline, "a workaholic."

 

The next question, for the cast only, has them throwing out an enticing list of their "favorite things" ..."the feel of ice cubes swirling around in a heavy crystal drink glass filled with brandy...and what comes after", "a beautiful sunset over the water" and the adorable, "Kittens!" And once more for emphasis, "KITTENS!" and lest we think this is going to be a saccharine sweet play i.e. "The Sound of Music" - "the feeling of anticipation when you know that you are about to have an orgasm".

 

Ensemble member Andrew White directs deftly with a light hand, keeping the pace of the play moving in an enjoyable way and flowing from act to act naturally, sensually, without the feeling of rushing.

 

So many directors charged with productions that exceed two hours or are under ninety minutes with no intermission seem to be rushing the actor’s monologues and dialogue. In some cases you can imagine them standing offstage tapping their feet saying, "Pick up the pace people!", which can actually ruin the show, but Andrew White does just the opposite, calming the audience into actually receiving the message this play is trying to deliver. 

  

“Life Sucks” is an updated version of the Checkov play "Uncle Vanya" and every single one of the seven characters really holds their own throughout.

 

Eddie Jemison best known for his work from "Ocean's Eleven", "Waitress" and "Hung" is proof that dynamite comes in small packages as he takes on the role of the middle aged, depressed Vanya. 

 

The entire cast sprinkle the play with so many humorous Yiddish slang terms with adorable ease like the term "ferkocta" which means crazy in the head, or Vanya declaring over and over that Ella is his "beshert" and soulmate, meaning a person's destined love or a love that was meant to be, a love of heavenly creation. All the while Vanya’s pathos as his obsession with The Professor's beautiful, young wife Ella grows out of control. This leads to a hysterical attack on The Professors life as he describes in a monologue how vile, disgusting and unnatural it is to him that she (Ella) should be with such an "old man".  

 

The Professor is played perfectly by Jim Ortlieb (Billy Elliot) whose great monologue about how even small signs of aging in a man can ultimately ruin a perfectly good relationship is fantastic. We rarely hear the male point of view on this.

 

The Professor describes while comically, yet realistically, sliding and crawling down the front steps of the cabin in complete exhaustion after a fight with his young wife Ella - how a man sees in the mirror one day. He now sees his soft belly or some new wrinkles or gray hair and feels insecure leading him to take it out on his partner and she in turn becomes more insecure herself - resulting in more fighting and insecurity or his worst fear of all as she "becomes disengaged" from him entirely.

 

Chaon Cross as Ella is excellent as the young Master's Degree student who "married the smartest Professor in the whole college" and is hit on by every middle aged loser in this small town. Cross delivers a great monologue ala - don't hate me because I'm beautiful because my brilliant husband turned out to be an aging, ego-maniacal alcoholic. 

 

Ella asks the audience flat out how many of them want to sleep with her with no strings attached by a show of hands, then asks how many are dying to sleep with someone other than whom they are with - and it is a well delivered, very funny and telling moment for the audience. 

 

Danielle Zuckerman as Sonia seems to be the opposite of Ella. She is The Professors' only daughter and honestly describes how in her family, "It's like everyone is hard-wired to upset everyone else. Like we each have a bunch of buttons on our back that each one of us knows how to push." 

 

Sonia knows she is not beautiful, or even pretty, she knows that her weight and height, glasses and curly hair are never featured in the magazines she reads and Zuckerman gives a great, breath of fresh air feeling to the entire production that it inherently needs. In one scene with Ella she admits to actually "hating" Ella for her beauty and attractiveness to ALL the nearby men and Ella forces her to "slap her right in the face" which Sonia does. After the "enjoyable" catharsis of the slap in the face they pour rum and Cokes together and begin to bond as both stepmother and friends. 

 

Another great scene between Sonia and Dr. Aster, a middle-aged Lothario who wants to change the world - but only talks about it, occurs when Sonia tries to tell the doctor she has a crush on him. When she realizes Dr. Aster is 'in love" with Ella too, she delivers a great monologue after his exit about how she talked with him about "mystical butterflies' when she really wanted to say, "Take me upstairs and f-ck me, f-ck me so well and so hard the whole universe stops to watch ... and the stars stop in their orbits and her whole body finally understands what it is to be truly alive...but instead I talked about mystical butterflies."

 

Ensemble member, Philip R. Smith, best known for his roles in "High Fidelity" and “Since You've Been Gone" is very funny in the role of Dr. Aster, an admitted alcoholic who rambles on about the very real dangers of climate change and other depressing subjects that remind us these characters are living in the present day.

 

Another example of the timeliness and universality of this play is when at one point an audience member is asked what his deepest, darkest fear is and he answered without hesitation, "Donald Trump", which got a huge laugh.

 

Penelope Walker plays "Pickles", a lesbian (who ALSO flirts with Ella). Pickles is a neighbor and friend of Sonia's late mother who wanted to be a real artist but ended up crafting what looked like leg warmers for the birch trees to wear and hand puppets made of yarn. Walker is funny and upbeat as the character whose age we can't quite tell, the free-spirited loser we all love who would never say life sucks even if hers does.

 

At the end of the show, Vanya and the cast break the fourth wall for the last time and confront the entire audience with the question, "Does life suck?" Some people shouted “yes”, or “no”, I shouted “sometimes”. Then Vanya called specifically out to the woman sitting two seats away from me (his wife) and asked her, she poignantly answered, "No it does not suck because life is beautiful – there is even beauty in its pain." I had to agree with her. 

 

Highly recommended.

 

“Life Sucks is being performed at Lookingglass Theatre through November 6th – www.Lookingglasstheatre.org.  

 

Helldrivers of Daytona, currently running at the Royal George Theatre, is a fun idea. It is a musical that seems to mostly spoof Elvis’ Viva Las Vegas, a story of a talented race car driver who needs to scrape up enough cash to get his car into the big race. James Nedrud does his best in the lead as Lucky Stubbs, lampooning the Elvis-like role, but often ends up shouting his best songs. Nonetheless, he does succeed nicely as a caricature of the sexy, country boy trying to make good we know from the film, coming off as a fey, one level dummy adding a lot of humor to the role. Nedrud’s expressions alone often draws laughs along with his overdone Southern accent and quirky denseness.  

 

The parodied scenes from Viva Las Vegas are many, from the girlfriend, Pepper, singing a song about how jealous she is of Lucky’s race car, the active competition with a French racing rival and even Lucky’s stint working as a hotel waiter where he walks in on Pepper and his challenger. Again, the idea was there. Problem is, despite some good acting and singing performances throughout the cast, the production goes a bit overboard with its silliness and many jokes simply fall flat. 

 

The music, composed by The Knack’s Berton Averre, captures the 1965 period nicely, some songs stuffed with clever punchlines, however, outside of a couple catchy melodies, most numbers will probably have a hard time sticking, as they fall a bit on the repetitive side.        

 

Samantha Pauly stands out from the entire cast and is a superb comedienne in the role of Pepper Johnson, Lucky’s sex kittenish, Anne Margaret type love interest. Her introductory song, "Peppers' Crazy Feeling" is hysterical as Pepper has one orgasm after another just by driving her pink colored bumpy, throbbing stick shift - an adorable convertible aptly named "Pinky”, getting huge laughs with each big "O", some of the only genuine laughs in the show. As the bi-sexual, millionaire race car driver and Count, David Sajewich is also funny even when he later channels a twelve-year-old French murderess to kill Lucky in the race (I told you it goes overboard). 

 

There are three essential speedway groupies and a tomboyish tag-along (Rachel Melius, Leah Morrow, Claire Lilley, and Julia Rose Duray). All had great voices and are played with real energy, sex appeal and great comic timing.

 

The beach bums who become Lucky's race car pit crew (Trey Curtis, Aaron M. Davidson, and Chris Selefski) have some funny moments and are good singers. Danny Herman and Rocker Verastique's choreography is often very sexy and funny at the same time, especially the dance numbers of seduction between Lucky and Pepper and Pepper's competing courtship dance with the Count. 

 

I adored Brenda Winstead's costumes particularly for all the women characters. The girl's outfits were colorful, perfectly cut for the time period and eye-poppingly sexy without actually revealing anything.

 

"Teenage Dreams" sung by the three groupies is the most memorable and interesting song to me. Their three fantasies in the number include, a Daddy's girl whose fixation on her handsome father still gets in the way of her love life, one was into being a dominatrix and having her man be her obedient puppy dog, and the third, raised Catholic, insists on finding a man who looks and acts like Jesus, her hero and savior.  I thought this song’s lyrics were very cleverly written and delivered by the girls and really captured the repressed fantasies and dating blocks that many women of all ages possibly struggle with today. Happily, for this trio, each one eventually finds her perfect mate in the trio of pit crew boys who help Lucky win the race. 

 

At a running time of 2 hours 25 minutes there are definitely still some cuts to be made but I had a lot of fun watching the show, and think a younger crowd at a theater with a more progressive reputation would as well. It might also be a good idea to take in Viva Las Vegas beforehand to really get the show’s camp.

 

Despite the show having a few more misses than hits, Helldrivers of Daytona still has enough laughs and doses of nostalgia that most will probably enjoy it overall. Its originality also counts for something, especially in its big finale racing scene.  

 

In its World Premiere, the pre-Broadway tryout, Helldrivers of Daytona, is being performed at Royal George Theatre through October 30th. To find out more about the show go to www.theroylageorgetheatre.com. 

 

*UPDATE – Due to negative reviews, the show has been cancelled for the remainder of its run. A statement was made from the show’s producers, “We all believed in Helldrivers of Daytona and more importantly believe in creating new works for the American Musical stage. We are disappointed by the critical response, but we knew that it was a risky endeavor. Still, many of the people who saw it were thoroughly entertained and delighted by the work of our fantastic cast and musicians. We have decided to close the production and we will evaluate how we might make changes for future productions of the musical. We want to thank our talented team of designers, our director and co-choreographer, our music director, our cast and crew, and of course our creative team who have all worked so diligently to get Helldrivers to the starting (and alas, finishing) line.”

 

That is unfortunate. Hopefully, we will see a tweaked production in the future. 

 

I thoroughly enjoyed this Hell in a Handbag Production starring the divine Caitlin Jackson, as the “Divine Miss M”, Bette Midler. The show takes us to the early days of Midler's career playing for gay audiences at the Continental baths for two years before her album, The Divine Miss M was released. 

 

Back in 1987 when I moved to New York after college I actually lived in The Ansonia for four years, a pre- war luxury building on New York's upper west side. I heard about the history of the building which included an entire circus complete with live elephants at one time living in the penthouse, and always wished I could have lived there in its heyday, when The Continental Baths was a gay bathhouse in the basement of The Ansonia Hotel, which was opened in 1968 by Steve Ostrow.

 

The features of this bathhouse included a disco dance floor, a cabaret lounge, sauna rooms, a narrow "Olympia Blue" swimming pool, bunk beds in public areas, and tiny rooms as one would find in any bathhouse. The facility had the capacity to serve nearly 1,000 men, 24 hours a day.

 

Jackson's MC, played adorably by Chad, mentions just a few of the features of the bathhouse like a vending machine which dispensed among other things KY Jelly, and a warning system that tipped off patrons when police arrived. He also points out an STD clinic, a supply of a lice-killing shampoo in the showers and how the hetero general public discovered the great shows going on underground and “ruined the scene". The baths were advertised as reminiscent of "the glory of ancient Rome".

 

Caitlin Jackson really captures the outrageous, open-minded spirit of Bette Midler. Most importantly though Jackson has the voice to really do justice to Midler’s renditions of “Superstar”, “Chattanooga Choo Choo”, and a sexy, bawdy cover of Bessie Smith’s “Empty Bed Blues”. Jackson also shines in her performances of “Chapel of Love”, “Hey Mambo” and delivered a heart wrenching, yet uplifting, “You Gotta Have Friends”.

 

Few people know that Barry Manilow was Bette Midler's accompanist during these years. Talk about two superstars finding each other at the right time! Jeremy Ramey as Barry Manilow is hysterical and really gets some great laughs as he plays the piano and captures the talented artist’s well known panache and flash. 

The show is filled out with the MC and two cutie pie twinks clad only in white towels the entire show played by TJ Crawford and Will Wilhelm. Although they are the author's invention they seem perfectly part of the show, giving Bette (Jackson) time to change in and out of her glamorous bosom enhancing outfits for number after great number. 

 

I really have to hand it to Caitlin Jackson, whose voice is capable of hitting Midler's high and low notes with seeming ease. Jackson also does her best in this slightly short production (1 hour 15 minutes with one intermission) to convey Bette Midler's HUGE personality and deeply penetrating sense of loneliness and compassion for the “cast outs” of the world - the ones "waiting on the corner for their friends to return."

 

Even if the songs were not actually part of Midler's bath house days, I left yearning to hear more, simply because Caitlin Jackson's voice was such a JOY to listen to and her face a wonderful mirror of Bette Midler's enthusiasm for life and love of the gay community without ever becoming a caricature.

 Highly Recommended. 

Bette, Live at the Continental Baths is being performed at Stage 773 through September 10th. More show info can be found at www.stage773.com. 

 

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 Factory Theater Company just opened their latest production, Dating and Dragons, in its adorable space in the heart of Rogers Park. The venue is very intimate but comfortable, nicely lit, colorful and in this summer heat - well air conditioned!

 

In Dating and Dragons, the lead character Jack and his friends are serious fantasy game players. They are best friends who sincerely enjoy their weekly game like a real family that does not welcome new members easily. With them, game night is not just tradition, it is religion. To mixed responses of his fellow gamers, Jack meets a cute girl at the video store he runs and although his friends try to advise him in the rules of dating, he soon finds that “rules” when it comes to love and sexual attraction just don't apply.

 

The play written by Mike Ooi is a light fun look at the lives of these young people and their fascination with becoming "actors" when they "act out" the different characters and their corresponding powers, like invisibility and flame throwing. A young Richard Dreyfuss-alike, Nick Freed is perfectly cast as Jack and is quite convincing as the love struck gamer who dances on the edge of reality and fiction.  

 

Personally, I never really understood the fascination and escape with games like Dungeons and Dragons which has SO many rules, until I saw this solidly written play.  

 

Paige, played by Savannah Rae, is the sole female member of this game-obsessed group of friends. Rae gets a lot of laughs throughout this funny production, shining brightly with her nerdy, physically comedic performance. 

 

Diane, the mysterious girl Jack falls for in real life, is played well by Rebecca Wolfe, sending off believable flirtation vibes. Diane soon experiences his gang of game hounds after only a few dates and attempts to join in a newbie (much to the dismay of an impatient staple in the group), slowing down the action while she learns the rules. In this case, meeting a gaming enthusiast group of friends too soon is akin to meeting a guy's parents too soon. It could go very well and cement a newly growing relationship or it could be the awkward end. 

 

This show is highly enjoyable and an easy watch. The story is cute, the characters interact well and the humorous dialogue rolls evenly, providing some much needed levity during such crazy times. Dating and Dragons is truthful, light and fun just in time for those seeking some pleasurable summer entertainment.  

 

The real lesson here, is that love is not a "game". D and D also reminds us to put fantasy aside when you find yourself depending too much on your friend’s advice and "dating rules". Don’t resist acting from your own real human gut, or you may have already lost the game due to lack of your own self confidence in the "real world". 

 

Dating and Dragons is being performed at The Factory Theater through August 13th. The theatre is located at 1623 W Howard Street. For more show info visit www.thefactorytheater.com.  

 

 

I love flamenco for its sensual power and the amazing way both female and male dancers, whether solo or couples, locked in passionate embrace are able to make the human body dance with such precision and emotional fury. Is there any other dance form where the men are so manly and sexily dressed in their boots and waist coats and the women in their flowing dresses so, well, womanly?

 

Currently performed at North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, "Flamenco Passion" as a rich production covers the whole range of human experience; dancing for your life, dancing for your love and dancing for the death of those you've loved deeply. The group numbers are stunningly modern like the world premiere of “Iroko”, while remaining true to the art form and "Alegrias y Jaleos", which make you feel you are in the countryside of Spain witnessing a turn of the century town dancing their way through life in a wonderful celebration of spring.  

 

“Bolero”, the acclaimed masterwork by Dame Libby Komaiko was a true stunner! I didn't realize it myself until this performance that you haven't even heard the full potential of the music in Ravel's “Bolero" until you've seen a stage full of the greatest forty flamenco dancers in the world bring it to a smoldering and exploding catharsis. 

 

In the second act an onstage singer, Cajon player and two guitarists accompanied all five dances, which really showcases that flamenco is a uniquely human and difficult dance to master. More passionate than tap yet just as exacting, more sensual than ballet yet just as demanding,  

 

We as Chicagoans should be so proud that Dame Libby Komaiko founded Ensemble Espanol at Northeastern Illinois University in 1975, and that her worldwide acclaimed dances and company are still going strong. 

 

Longtime Ensemble dancer Irma Suarez Ruiz, who'll begin taking over the role of artistic director from Dame Libby in the coming year and Carmela Greco with her long mane of silver hair both blew the entire sold out audience away. The two proved that dance is the way to stay young with 2010 solo "Duende Gitana" which intermingled "Palmas" (hand-clapping), percussion, stamping and song. It really was a masterwork of everlasting love expressed with furious passion (there's that word again) between her and the live musicians. The live music accompaniment dance numbers were heartfelt, raw with almost ragged singing and mind-bogglingly complex percussion from the guitarists and Cajon player that expressed the ageless beauty of both the performers themselves and this wonderful dance form. The subject of no less than two documentaries Dame Komaiko has almost single-handedly kept the art form of Flamenco not only alive but growing and flourishing. She is modest when speaking of her success and acknowledges that in some troupes the art form has become too mechanical. 

 

I could see this show again and again and each time notice brilliant new details from this large and gifted cast each time. 

 

Highly recommended. 

 

Page 2 of 18

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