Theatre

It's not often you'll hear cool and the play 'Picnic' in the same sentence, but director Will Davis' new version at American Theater Company is just that. This is William Inge's 1953 Pulitzer Prize winner as you've never seen it before. For many, 'Picnic' triggers high school boredom flashbacks. When traditionally produced, this play can tend to be a little dry. Not the case here, with unique staging and deconstructed notions of gender, Davis brings Inge's work into our century. 

 

William Inge was himself gay in a time period in which it was not acceptable. The theme of secret desire in 'Picnic' parallel Inge's own struggle with being other in a more straight-laced world. Though the Midwest has certainly changed since the 1950's, much of its close-mindedness still exists and that's what remains relevant about Inge's play. 

 

This is Will Davis' first full season as artistic director of American Theater Company and this production is bound to get noticed. This version of 'Picnic' begins as almost performance art; a woman takes a seat at a piano and the cast enters in the shadows. In look and feel, this production couldn't be more different from the traditional staging. While jarring at first, the cast immediately finds its footing and makes Inge's dialogue come to life. Artful and visually stunning effects are peppered throughout, which make for a memorable experience. 

 

Performances are impressive here. Davis' gender-blind casting forces you to focus not on what a performer looks like but rather how their performance makes you feel. In the role of transient stud Hal, is Molly Brennan. While it's apparent she is female, through costuming and attitude, Brennan delivers Hal with such sincerity, it brings to mind Mary Martin's Peter Pan. Malic White is striking in the role of Madge. White's petite and soft spoken Madge turns preconceived notions about feminine beauty on its head. Spinster school teacher Rosemary is played hilariously by Michael Turrentine whose physicality couldn’t be more spot on. 

 

Classic plays should be analyzed in every time for their relevance. These plays can only stay part of the cannon if they connect to a modern audience. It's important for theater companies to take risks and make bold choices to usher these works into a new millennium. Will Davis' 'Picnic' hints at a fearless future for American Theater Company. 

 

Through April 23 at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron St. 773-409-4125

 

Published in Theatre in Review

American Theater Company's  (ATC) regional premiere of Men on Boats, written by Jaclyn Backhaus and directed by artistic director Will Davis, took on the story of the one-arm captain, William Wesley Powell, who was commissioned by the U.S. government in 1869 to map the Green and Colorado rivers of the Grand Canyon.

 

Davis was recently appointed as ATC artistic director and Men on Boats is his first production for the company. He was also responsible for staging the Off Broadway version of the play in 2015.

 

The expedition, the first sanctioned in the American West, consisted of 10 grizzled explorers who set out on four boats, courageously riding through the rivers of the Grand Canyon. However, their varied personalities were almost as difficult to navigate as the terrain.

 

Backhaus' Men on Boats, performed by a genderfluid cast of women and folks otherwise defined, provides an entertaining look this historic journey as well as perhaps providing a statement on just how much American society and the role of women have changed since the 1800's. 

 

The ATC cast includes ATC ensemble member Kelly O'Sullivan (William Dunn) and ATC youth ensemble alumna Lawren Carter (Hall), with Erin Barlow (Frank Goodman), Arti Ishak (John Colton Sumner), Brittney Love Smith (Bradley), Sarai Rodriguez (Seneca Howland), Avi Roque (O.G. Howland), Stephanie Shum (Hawkins), Kelli Simpkins (John Wesley Powell) and Lauren Sivak (Old Shady).

 

A simple yet effective set and props, as well as carefully choreographed movements, provide a heightened sense of action, especially when the explorers tackle the imagined vertical drops in the rivers.

 

Although the cast is really good at selling the quirkiness and reticence of some of the explorers and how those differences lead to small skirmishes among the crews, at times it is not enough to sustain it through the 100-minute performance.

 

Overall Backhaus provides is an interesting and sobering look at how a group of people can risk everything in the name of adventure and discovery. It speaks to the heroism we often bestow on our early American West explorers, their faith and commitment in their own visions yet it also highlights the vulnerabilities, conflicts and contradictions of blind loyalty. For it is only one person, John Wesley Powell, who reaps the actual benefits of their bravery as a team.

 

Recommended

 

Men on Boats is playing at ATC now through February 12, 2017. Tickets are available at the ATC box office or by visiting atcweb.org.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

"A place where nobody dared to go

The love that we came to know

They call it Xanadu

 

And now, open your eyes and see

What we have made is real

We are in Xanadu

 

A million lights are dancing

And there you are, a shooting star

An everlasting world and you're here with me

Eternally"

 

I want to go to there - and this wonderful cast and crew at American Theater Company took me all the way!

 

I'm not like the other critics who like to tear down the original movie starring Olivia Newton John, Gene Kelly and some poor actor who resembled Andy Gibb whose name I can't remember because I never saw him again! Oh yeah, Michael Beck. No, I’m in the minority that LOVED Xanadu when it came out.  

 

To a theater geek like myself who also danced with a dance troupe (in leg warmers) and studied painting and drawing, this is a fantasy love story consisting of an artistic Queen of the Arts, the Demi God, “Kira”, who fulfills her own need to create art while helping the mortal she has fallen in love with, Sonny Malone. Timing is everything as she successfully pulls Sonny out of a suicidal depression just after her arrival to help him achieve his dreams, which was the PERFECT romantic expression of what I dreamed my life would be (minus the roller skates).

 

I saw Xanadu a few years back at The Broadway Playhouse and this production succeeds in every way that one did not. 

 

First of all, the staging thanks to director Lili Anne Brown and scenic design by Arnel Sanciano, place the audience in the round of what appears to be the actual roller rink/empty building where much of the film took place in. The set is complete with a disco ball overhead flooding the room with the lights and sounds of the 80's in a fun and involving way.

 

Then there are the voices - the two leads Kira/Cleo played by Landree Fleming and Sonny Malone played by Jim DeSelm are absolutely dead on GREAT singers. It is refreshing to see the role of Kira played by an actress who has the singing chops to pull off Olivia Newton John's star quality voice and is able to capture the romance of the character that should still be present amidst poking fun of her. 

 

Landree Fleming not only hits the highest high notes, she infuses them with the same "magical” quality that Olivia Newton John delivered and she did it without the aid of a sound booth and full orchestra. Landree is not only super funny in the role, she is a great physical comedienne and got laughs out of every sad little shrug of her shoulders and comically delivered line. This is partially in thanks to her hilarious over-emphasized Aussie accent to make the joke without necessarily making her character into a joke. 

 

Another thing that I LOVED about this production, which really caught the hugely optimistic 1980's message with amazing love songs by ELO like "Strange Magic", "I’m Alive", and John Farrer’s "Magic", is that even though they captured the campiness by casting several of Kira's sister Muses as men, Jim De Selm chose to play the role of Sonny as straight man all the way through, creating a believable romance unlike other productions of Xanadu I’ve seen. When I saw the touring production years ago with the Sonny character played as a flamboyantly gay man who could never realistically fall in love with Kira no matter how beautiful she was, it not only took the flash and jazz out of the great campy gay humor, it also took all of the wonderful jokes and truths about hetero love and flattened them out into a joyless, hopeless mess.

 

Every single muse in this production has their own flair and style, and fantastic singing skills. For example, when Muse Melponene’s (Karla L Beard) very first notes came out of her mouth - I knew we were going to be in for a treat of great singing all around. Hanah Rose Nardone as Muse of Music Euterpe, James Negrud as Muse Terpicore and Daniel Spagnuolo as Thalia are three obviously classically trained, highly skilled dancers who ALSO delivered delicious comedy throughout whether executing a perfect pirouette or any other form of modern dance thrown in to celebrate the 80's.

 

Aaron Holland is also a bright spot in this production. Holland is simply hysterical in his dual roles as white afro-wearing Zeus and as building owner/investor Danny Maguire – and he too, like the rest of this talented cast, delivers vocally. 

 

Samantha C. Jones does a fantastic job with the perfectly period funny, yet still SEXY, campy stylish costuming, designed for many, many quick changes as some of the actors play multiple roles from beginning to end.

 

I could go on and on about the entire cast and the great six-piece live band that is also implemented into the show in a wonderful way.

 

For a highly enjoyable way to spend an evening with good music and heavy bouts of laughter, American Theater Company’s Xanadu would be tough to beat. In the lobby after the show I heard another woman discussing the show excitedly saying, "Girls Night out!!! We are going to all come and see this together!!" 

 

Her comments personify the exact joy and thoughts I was having as I left the theater. This truly musically gifted production is so much fun, so true to the romance and high artistic ideals we all had entering the 1980's, ideals and hopes for a rainbow future of the Arts that were completely squashed throughout the decade. 

 

This uplifting and exuberantly romantic production of Xanadu makes you glad you were alive to experience a simpler time and still come out swinging in support for ALL of the Arts including painting, singing, dancing and humor- a full 36 years later!

 

Perfectly blended with its poking fun at the 80’s, use of catchy music and romantic overtones, I highly recommend Xanadu. In fact, catch it more than once if you can. But do yourself a favor and watch the movie first so that you can truly appreciate its parodic humor.

 

Xanadu is currently being performed at American Theater Company through July. Tickets start at a very reasonable price of $30. For more show information, visit http://www.atcweb.org/.  

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Wednesday, 08 June 2016 19:09

Review: Xanadu at American Theater Company

Last year the Chicago theatre community lost a major piece of its landscape. Longtime American Theater Company artistic director PJ Paparelli died abruptly before solidifying the company's thirty-first season. It's almost ironic that a man responsible for bringing so many uncomfortably topical dramas to the Chicago stage had such a soft spot for "Xanadu." As a tribute to the late Paparelli, ATC concludes their thirty-first season with this campy roller disco musical. 

 

For most, "Xanadu" is among the worst movies ever made. In 1980, still riding high on her "Grease" fame, Olivia Newton John was cast as Zeus' favorite muse sent to Venice Beach, California to help struggling street artist Sonny Malone achieve his destiny of opening a roller disco. The film also featured an aged Gene Kelly. Though the movie was an overwhelming flop, the soundtrack by Electric Light Orchestra and John Fahrer was a huge hit. 

 

In 2008, Broadway producers decided to satirize the now cult classic as a stage musical. Initial reviews were favorable and it even had a short engagement in Chicago. Unfortunately, due to the recession, "Xanadu" didn't last long, but is now enjoying great popularity in regional theaters. 

 

Somehow American Theater Company and director Lili-Anne Brown are able to make their "Xanadu" more significant than what's at the surface. There's no shortage of comedic gold in this cast of young faces, but what lingers are the incredible group numbers that fill the intimate garage space. This "Xanadu" has so much life that you can almost forget the source material. In the lead role of Clio, or Kira, is Landree Fleming who takes this role in a sketch comedy direction that turns out to be ripe with goofy humor. Jim DeSelm co-stars as Sonny Malone and is not only nice to look at, but he can really belt. 

 

Lili-Anne Brown's ensemble of sister muses fills out this energetic cast and each provide stand-out performances, even if their character names and motives are somewhat arbitrary. The cast looks like they're having a lot of fun together and it's contagious throughout the 90-minute run-time. Even the band, which in some musicals can seem disconnected, are joining in the fun. "Xanadu" at American Theater Company is a high-octane good time and a really fitting tribute to one of Chicago's most groundbreaking theatre artists. 

 

Through July 17th at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron Street. 773-409-4125.

 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Some people can only see what's right in front of them. Abe Koogler explores this theme in his play "Kill Floor" making its Midwestern debut at American Theater Company. The slaughterhouse is a setting once familiarized by Upton Sinclair in his novel "The Jungle." Koogler is updating this disturbing classic for our modern era. While we'd like to think we've evolved since 1906, perhaps we haven't. Maybe because we can't see the inside of a slaughterhouse, we don't think about how horrible factory farming really is. 

 

"Kill Floor" tells the story of Andy (Audrey Francis) who has been recently released from prison. Rick (Eric Slater) is a foreman at the slaughterhouse and gives Andy a job after taking pity on her. A flirtation develops despite that Eric is married, and it's suggested that Andy won't be promoted off the kill floor unless she sleeps with him. B, or Brendan (Sol Patches) is Andy's fifteen year old son who lives with foster parents. B struggles with a closeted homosexual crush, and the reality that most people ignore what makes them uncomfortable. B is also a vegan, making even it harder for Andy to reconnect with him. 

 

Under the direction of Jonathan Berry, this ensemble cast is killing it. Audrey Francis delivers a heartbreaking performance as a woman trying to reclaim her life. She falters naturally between assertiveness and crushing trauma. There's an emotional honesty in her performance that makes for a rare theater experience. Eric Slater and Sol Patches make for an excellent supporting cast. 

 

Koogler's play makes some intriguing points without browbeating the audience with his message. Particularly the comparison between mass incarceration and meat processing. In a way, we're all like the cattle - blindly following one another through winding tunnels, unsure of what's ahead. There's a certain degree of understanding he expects from his viewers. The script strays away from melodrama, leaving some stories untold and ideas unfinished. What's more human than that? 

 

Through May 1st at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron Street. 773-409-4125

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

It may be surprising to few that the story of Chicago Public Housing is not a happy one. When we think of the “projects” many of us can only think of the harsh setting in the film “Candyman” or an NWA music video. Not an actual place where families thrive and children experience firsts. Younger Chicago residents strolling the now safe streets of Old Town would find it hard to believe it was once the Cabrini-Green housing projects.

PJ Paparelli’s documentary-style play “The Project(s)” makes its premiere at American Theater Company where he is the artistic director. Paperelli’s unflinching look at the rise and literal fall of the Chicago Housing Association’s projects was a five year endeavor, collecting oral histories from real-life residents. Along with co-writer Joshua Jaeger, Paparelli delivers a well-researched and well-structured documentary about urban living with obvious parallels to the ongoing Civil Rights movement. A talented ensemble of African American actors give a certain levity to this piece through humor and stirring choreography by Jakari Sherman.

“The Project(s)” tells the troubled story of American Public Housing from its inception, to its bright beginnings and finally to its tragic dissolution in the late 1990s. The script is composed of an array of voices that don’t just bemoan the struggles of the working poor, but also romanticize a long-gone sense of community. The ensemble seamlessly moves in and out of mostly nameless characters that become familiar and endearing.

For many theatre-goers, life in the projects is a foreign world. Just as the tragic headlines of South Side violence may only be static for a Lincoln Park homeowner who doesn’t see shootings on their block. “The Project(s)” forces audiences to confront the everyday aggressions of an oppressed community. It also throws gentrification in the face of its supporters. Too often we hear people casually debate, “Gentrification isn’t that bad – it’s a good thing, it helps people.” Paparelli’s script begs to differ. It lends a voice and a face to the droves of people displaced when developers turn neighborhoods.

Through May 24th at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron Street. 773-409-4125

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

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