Theatre

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.  

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

The New Colony is pleased to announce its full 2017 Season, featuring four world premiere productions by four Chicago playwrights. The season kicks off this winter with ensemble member Sean Kelly’s fantasy adventure PSYCHONAUT LIBRARIANS, directed by Krissy Vanderwarker. In the spring, TNC presents Connor McNamara’s political thriller SCAPEGOAT; OR (WHY THE DEVIL ALWAYS LOVED US), directed by Kristina Valada-Viars followed by a summer production of Beth Kander’s Kentucky-lore saga THE BLUE, directed by Tony Horne. The season concludes next fall with Michael Allen Harris’ prison drama PUNK, directed by Diana Raiselis. The full 2017 season will be presented at The New Colony’s resident home The Den Theatre, 1333 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. Tickets will go on sale at a later date. For additional information, visit www.thenewcolony.org. 

 

Comments The New Colony Co-Artistic Director Evan Linder, “We are thrilled that this season kicks off with the newest creation by ensemble member Sean Kelly. We are equally excited that our other three 2017 playwrights and all four of our directors will be making their New Colony debuts this year. These extraordinary creative teams are filling our ninth season with four world premieres that remind us why The New Colony exists in the first place: New Art, New Artists, New Audiences.”

 

The New Colony’s 2017 Season includes:

 

January 11 – February 11, 2017

PSYCHONAUT LIBRARIANS – World Premiere!

Written by Sean Kelly

Directed by Krissy Vanderwarker

 

The library is closed. The curtains are drawn. A Bunsen burner flicks on in the dark. The librarians sip their glowing elixir and the room spins with color and light. One more time. One last fight at the barrier between realiy... and the anyverse.

 

April 5 – May 7, 2017

SCAPEGOAT; OR (WHY THE DEVIL ALWAYS LOVED US) – World Premiere!

Written by Connor McNamara

Directed by Kristina Valada-Viars

 

When a story leaks revealing he is secretly a Satanist, an idealistic Senator perched for a Judicial Appointment grapples with his family, The Christian Right, and his daughter-in-law (supposedly) returned from the dead, in order to save his life and his legacy.

 

July 12 – August 13, 2017

THE BLUE – World Premiere!

Written by Beth Kander

Directed by Tony Horne

 

The Alexander sisters of Worried Creek, Kentucky, have it rough. The eldest, April, a pregnant prize-fighter, refuses to reveal the identity of her unborn baby's father; the youngest, May, is dead (though a very talkative ghost); and the brilliant middle sister June was born with the family curse: bright blue skin. But June hasn't abandoned hope. She writes daily to a plastic surgeon in Los Angeles, a man she believes can cure her... but when he shows up at their doorstep, each of the sisters’ lives (and deaths) take unexpected turns.

 

October 4 – November 5, 2017

PUNK – World Premiere!

Written by Michael Allen Harris

Directed by Diana Raiselis

 

Set in a maximum-security prison in present day America, Punk is the story of a group of inmates who are protected and housed in a special unit for gay, bisexual and transgender inmates. Tensions rise when Travis, a young man sentenced to life in prison for the murder of a gay man, requests to transfer into the unit. Fear and suspicion hover over the inmates who call this unit home.  Currently in development in The New Colony's Associate Company Intensive Program, Punk will receive a two-week workshop production in December of 2016 before its world premiere in the fall of 2017.

 

About The Playwrights & Directors

 

Sean Kelly (Playwright, Psychonaut Librarians) is a Chicago-born writer and director. He is currently leading a collaboration of nearly 50 artists in the creation 100 new stories – deep stories told in silly ways. He has written and directed at Porchlight Music Theatre, Victory Gardens, Collaboraction, The Old Town School of Folk Music and his home, The New Colony.

 

Krissy Vanderwarker (Director, Psychonaut Librarians) is a freelance director most recently of Thaddeus & Slocum: A Vaudeville Adventure at Lookingglass. She is also the Co-Artistic Director of Dog & Pony Theatre Co. D&P directing credits include: Breach, Counterfeiters, The Dinner Party Project, God’s Ear, As Told by the Vivian Girls, Mr. Marmalade, Ape, Osama the Hero, Crumble (Lay Me Down, Justin Timberlake) and As Much As You Can. Other professional directing credits include: Harry & The Thief (Pavement Group), The Grown-Up (Shattered Globe), CLEAR (About Face Theatre), What Once We Felt (About Face Theatre) and As Much As You Can (Hendel Productions West). She graduated with her MFA in Directing from The Theatre School at DePaul University and is on faculty there now. krissyvanderwarker.com 

 

Connor McNamara (Playwright, Scapegoat; or (Why The Devil Always Loved Us) Originally from Youngstown, Ohio, Connor has lived and worked in Chicago for the past five years. His stage work was most-recently seen during the Chicago Home Theatre Festival; his prose published in ink&coda Magazine, as well as shortlisted for The Aeon Award. As an actor, Connor has worked with The Griffin Theatre, Marry-Arrchie Theatre Co., Step Up Productions, among others. He is a graduate of Kent State University and The School at Steppenwolf. 

 

Kristina Valada-Viars  (Director, Scapegoat; or (Why The Devil Always Loved Us) appeared in a benefit reading of The Warriors with The New Colony. Scapegoat will be her Chicago directing debut. She has worked on new play development projects with New Dramatists in New York and workshop productions with American Theatre Company, About Face, Goodman Theater and others.  Chicago acting credits include The (Curious Case of the) Watson Intelligence (Theater Wit), The Diary of Anne Frank (Writers Theatre); The Great God Pan (Next Theatre); Completeness (Theater Wit) and Pony (About Face Theatre). She also served as Assistant Director on The Matchmaker (Goodman Theatre) and Seven Homeless Mammoths Wander New England (Theater Wit). Ms. Valada-Viars’ other New York credits include original productions of Monstrosity (13P); Love Drunk (Abingdon Theatre Company); The Music Teacher (New Group) and 516 (New York International Fringe Festival). Her film and television credits include Molly's Girl (Best Actress in a Feature, Iris Prize Film Festival), Written Off (Amazon Prime) The Door in the Floor, BlackBox, Shameless, Law & Order: CI and Animal Husbandry. Upcoming: The Burials at Steppenwolf. She is also currently working in the field of Audience Design and Artist/Audience Engagement with Theater Wit.

 

Beth Kander (Playwright, The Blue) is a Chicago-based writer with Southern and Midwestern roots. Recent playwriting awards and activities include Ashland New Plays Festival (2016 & 2015), The Ruckus’ 2016 summer festival, BechdelFest 2016, The Kilroys List (Honorable Mentions 2016 & 2015), The Writers Room at The New Colony, Leapfest 2015, Downstage Left Residency, Charles M. Getchell New Play Award and three Eudora Welty New Play Awards. She has scripts represented by Stage Rights in Los Angeles and Chicago Dramaworks. In addition to playwriting, Kander writes novels, screenplays and children's literature. She is finishing her MFA in Creative Writing at Mississippi University for Women, and has degrees from Brandeis University and the University of Michigan www.facebook.com/bybethkander

 

Tony Horne (Director, The Blue) A proud native of Memphis, Tony is currently freelance stage director and an Associate Professor/Head of Musical Theatre at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee.  His work encompasses theatre education, arts management, performance, direction and choreography. Tony’s directing credits include both plays and musicals. Career highlights include directing Once on This Island (the inaugural production for the new Hattiloo Theatre building in Memphis), the world premiere of the Theatre for Young Audiences version of The Wiz (First Stage, Milwaukee, WI), winning Ostrander Awards (Memphis Theatre Award) for Direction of a Musical for The Color Purple (Playhouse on the Square, Memphis, TN) and The Wiz (Hattiloo Theatre, Memphis, TN), and directing the Mid-South regional premieres of August Wilson’s Gem of the Ocean (Playhouse on the Square, Memphis, TN), Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop (Hattiloo Theatre/Circuit Playhouse, Memphis, TN) and Lee Breuer & Bob Telson’s The Gospel at Colonus (Playhouse on the Square, Memphis, TN). Tony holds a BFA in Musical Theatre Dance from the United States International University (now Alliant International), an MBA in Arts Management from UCLA and an MFA in Directing from the University of Memphis.

 

Michael Allen Harris (Playwright, Punk) As a playwright, Michael has collaborated with Chicago theatre companies such as Broken Nose Theatre, Jackalope Theatre, Arc Theatre, Stage 773, Fine Print Theatre, Chicago Home Theater Festival and The New Colony. His play, Rocky Road, received its world premiere at the New Studio Theatre of Columbia College Chicago in March of 2013. It was the first production featured in the Main Stage season that was authored by an alumnus. His play, The Velvet Tabernacle, was featured in a development series on behalf of Fine Print Theatre. His most recent play, Kingdom, is currently involved in a season-long development on behalf of Broken Nose Theatre and received its first stage reading at Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater. In February 2016, he was part of The New Colony’s Writer’s Room and completed the first draft of his full-length play Ascension. His short plays include: House of Samurai, They Let Him Bleed, Project Agatha and The Woman Who Stared into the Eyes of The Red Horseman. As an actor, Michael worked with Adventure Stage, Eclipse Theatre, Gift Theatre, Teatro Vista, The-Massive, Stone Soup Theatre Project, Infusion Theatre, Broken Nose Theatre and Cold Basement Dramatics. He was nominated for a BTAA for his performance as Fortune in Eclipse Theatre’s Jeff-nominated production of Ruined. He is a proud ensemble member of Eclipse Theatre Company and proudly represented by Lily’s Talent. 

 

Diana Raiselis (Director, Punk) is a Chicago-based director and community event producer.  Recent directing projects include Resolution (Pride Films & Plays), Punk (workshop production, The New Colony), THIRST: a climate change theater action (Jackalope) and festival premieres with Collaboraction, Jackalope, Prologue and Buzz22 Chicago. As a producer, she co-curates Slaymaker Loft's occasional new-work series party/theater/party, and has served on producing teams for events at Pritzker Pavilion, the Steppenwolf Garage and site-specific locations around Chicago. Proud alumna of Northwestern University and the Steppenwolf Professional Leadership Program. www.dianaraiselis.com

 

About The New Colony

 

The New Colony develops New Art and New Artists in order to educate and build New Audiences.

 

Founded in 2008, The New Colony has already established itself as “one of Chicago’s essential off-Loop companies” (Chicago Tribune). Through the premiere of over twenty-five world premiere plays and musicals, The New Colony has cultivated a diverse audience of theatergoers eager to have a voice in the storytelling. Conversation, collaboration and innovation remain at the heart of everything they produce. The New Colony’s work has been honored with four Non-Equity Jeff Awards, Broadway in Chicago’s 2011 Emerging Theatre Award and Best Overall Production at the 2012 New York International Fringe Festival. The New Colony’s 2017 Season marks their third year as a resident company in the Upstairs Mainstage of The Den Theatre in Wicker Park.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Tuesday, 20 September 2016 09:30

Review: You on the Moors Now

From its frenetic opening to its poetic end, The Hypocrites' You on the Moors Now is a rip-roaring, hilarious adventure. The play, written by Jaclyn Backhaus, features four of classic literature’s all-time favorite heroines: Jo March, from Louisa May Alcott’s “Little Women”, Elizabeth (Lizzy) Bennett from Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice”, Jane Eyre from Charlotte Bronte’s “Jane Eyre”, and Cathy Earnshaw from Emily Bronte’s “Wuthering Heights”.

 

Directed by Devon de Mayo, this little gem may not be quite what these famed authors from the 19th century envisioned when they wrote their enduring novels, however for any lover of those romantic classics this new look at our heroines is definitely worth the journey.

 

Even if you are not familiar with the novels, in a very effective move, de Mayo takes great care to make sure the audience is not lost by creating the “Pemberley Museum” setting complete with artifacts as well as “museum guides” providing detailed information about each heroine.

 

If you are familiar then you know that Lizzy’s, Jane’s, Cathy’s and Jo’s stories have often been retold on the stage and big and small screen, offering up modern touches and interpretations for new generations. You on the Moors Now attempts to do all of that and more by merging all four storylines seamlessly with humor. It is an empowering look at a group of women who say ‘no’ not only to their ardent suitors but also to the conventions and societal norms expected of them. They lean in and on each other as they embark on a journey that is not without a battle and considerable cost.

 

One of the elements that makes the play so much fun is the role reversal where the suitors: Laurie (Little Women), Heathcliff (Wuthering Heights), Mr. Darcy (Pride and Prejudice) and Mr. Rochester (Jane Eyre) are utterly distraught – DISTRAUGHT – even collapsing on the floor in a faint, as if their whole worlds have been destroyed, at the very idea of being so impudently rejected.

 

Meanwhile, the heroines are settled on the moors around a campfire enjoying s'mores and sharing solidarity and dreams of what they can be and do with their newfound freedom.

 

In one illuminating scene, the group of heroines observes how men are granted space to get over their disappointments while women are expected to just make themselves presentable for the next opportunity. For them, this moment represents their chance to have that same space and in it, they will live, travel and love.

 

The men, however, plan to not only find Jo, Jane, Lizzy and Cathy but to exact vengeance for their spurned proposals as well. A battle of the sexes ensues as each side enlists the aid of secondary characters from all four novels including the Bingley siblings from “Pride and Prejudice” – Charles and Caroline, and St. John River and his sister from “Jane Eyre”. Messages are passed from camp to camp via perfumed handkerchiefs and colorful ribbons until a betrayal leads the suitors to the heroines’ encampment where the hilarious battle of the Moors Wars commences – complete with movie and TV references from the “Game of Thrones” to “Home Alone”.

 

A very talented, diverse cast keeps a fast pace and a consistent rhythm throughout most of the play. However, after an energetic fight scene, the third act slows a bit but that could be due to the shift into more prose and poetic language, which could easily appear in any of the novels, and it provides a very effective and satisfying ending.

 

You on the Moors Now is playing at The Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage until October 30, 2016. Tickets can be purchased at www.the-hypocrites.com.

Published in Theatre Reviews
Sunday, 18 September 2016 18:40

Carroll Gardens Grows Heavy with Plot

Well-to-do friends clashing over hidden resentments and jealousies while dining is a common scenario in the contemporary American theatre. Donald Margulies won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 2000 for Dinner with Friends, which focused on romantic entanglements, and Ayad Akhtar won in 2013 for Disgraced, which also addressed issues of Islam-inspired and anti-Islamic prejudice. To wrap up a year of smash-hits, the 16th Street Theater is producing the world premiere of A. Zell Williams’s Carroll Gardens, a “comedy” of the same genre which is about an interracial childhood friendship in working-class Stockton, and how it changes when one of the parties becomes a New York creative professional. Williams commented that theatre is bereft of the experience of today’s young African-Americans, and perhaps in an attempt to compensate for not seeing his concerns addressed elsewhere, he overloads his play with plot points, and exposition. However, he also has a very strong director in Ann Filmer, the 16th Street Theater’s artistic director, and a more than capable cast.

The story begins in 1993, when Davis (played as a child by Davu Smith) is visiting the home of Robby (played as a child by Rowan Moxley) for the first time. Robby is new to town and doesn’t have many friends yet, but he just made one in Davis by beating up his bully. Davis isn’t sure what to make of Robby: though they are only ten, Robby’s deceased mother forced him to read Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and he uses terms such as “cultural appropriation,” yet Robby, who is white, totally fails to recognize what the other kids mean by calling Davis an “oreo” and thinks ending feuds is as simple as telling his adversaries he doesn’t feel like fighting anymore. Still, they bond by introducing each other to Nirvana and The Coup, and though Davis is bemused by Robby, they genuinely like each other.

Flash forward to Davis’s thirtieth birthday, and things are no longer so warm. Davis (Gregory Geffard) hasn’t responded to any of Robby’s attempts to contact him in years, and Robby (Andy Lutz) mostly stopped trying until right before announcing that he will be visiting Davis’s new apartment in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn. While Davis is now an up-and-coming screenwriter, Robby still dresses like a teenager, apparently has no occupation other than selling weed, and still spouts leftist dogma. Davis’s girlfriend, image-conscious Pilates instructor Quinlan (Alex Fisher), does not care for Robby’s uncouthness, and Davis is getting irritated with him, too, when a confluence of events reminds him of how strangled he feels by the upper-class liberalism, trendiness, and materialism of his new environment. Quinlan genuinely loves him, and Robby’s jealous interference in their lives prompts more than just a culture clash, but on the eve of his total transition into adulthood, Davis is forced to ask himself what he truly wants.

There is another couple present who Davis and Quinlan are friends with. Deepti (Minita Gandhi, Leena Kurishingal later in the run) is an Indian-American OB-GYN and the kind of person who thinks declaring “you can tell that injera bread was created to go with lambs raised on African grass” could be anything other than obnoxious. Her boyfriend and Davis’s director, Jamie (Brian J. Hurst), is a politically correct conscious-raising-type who somehow manages to say something casually racist with every breath, and Davis suspects he has outgrown him, too. Williams has drawn his characters in great detail, and Filmer chose well in casting actors who pick up all the details he supplies them with. As the child Davis, Smith’s incredulity at Moxley’s Robby is adorable, and as the adult Robby, Lutz’s clumsy attempts to get along with Quinlan’s Fisher are hilariously uncomfortable.

 

The problem with Carroll Gardens is that Williams creates too many complications. Davis must not only decide whether it is possible to continue his relationship with Robby, but also whether he wants to continue on with Quinlan and Brian, all for different reasons. While it is understandable for Williams to want to put him under pressure, the defining traits of each character are hammered on a few too many times. Carroll Gardens does, however, have two saving graces. The first is that, in Geffard’s hands, Davis does not come across as weak, but as disillusioned and somewhat disappointed. The script’s other strength is that Quinlan is a fully-developed, sympathetic character, who has her own concerns about their new lifestyle. Fisher captures a great deal of conflict and nuance in her performance, and is able to wrest an equal position in the play to Geffard and Lutz. Joanna Iwanicka has supplied the 16th St with another fine, naturalistic set, which, with just a few touches, suggests a converted space being occupied by people whose income is being almost entirely eaten up by their rent. Would that Williams had left just a few more details to his other collaborators, but what he has written is respectable, and the inaugural production is an ideal telling of the story.

Recommended

Playing through October 15 at the 16th Street Theater, 6420 16th Street, Berwyn, Illinois. Running time is two hours and ten minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $20, with discounts for Berwyn residents and groups. Free parking is provided in the lot at 16th and Gunderson.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

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. 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Friday, 16 September 2016 16:17

Review: Shattered Globe's "True West"

In a Sam Shepard play, rarely are things what they seem. His 1980 play "True West" is no exception. Under the direction of James Yost, Shattered Globe Theatre tackles this modern classic. "True West" is often considered part of a family saga by Shepard that includes his 1979 Pulitzer Prize winner "Buried Child." 

 

Austin and Lee are two brothers who couldn't be more different. Austin (Kevin Viol) is an upstanding writerly type who we first meet hunched over a typewriter in his mother's kitchen. Lee (Joseph Wiens) is his hulking older brother with a checkered past. Austin is working on a script in his mother's house while she's on vacation. Hoping for some peace and quiet, he's interrupted by Lee whom he hasn't seen in five years. Over the course of Act I, we watch as Lee and Austin battle for superiority through frustratingly inane questions. The moment of reckoning comes when Lee highjacks Austin's meeting with an important Hollywood executive. 

 

What the play points to in American culture is that bullies win. Bullies get what they want and being a polite makes you weak. This theme couldn't be more relevant as we look to a certain unpresidential candidate running for president this year. No matter how much evolution we have to the contrary, human nature is that the strongest eat first. Austin and Lee can be interpreted as two parts of the same mind. Shepard often opines on the perception of masculinity. "True West" explores the duality we all possess. 

 

There's a special place in Chicago's theater community for "True West." It was one of the first out-of-town successes of a then fledgling theater company, The Steppenwolf. Gary Sinese and John Malkovich starred in the principal roles. It transferred off-Broadway in 1984 and helped establish The Steppenwolf as one of the best regional theaters in America. 

 

Director James Yost's vision for this show is faithful. The set by Greg Pinsoneault drops us right into 1980. Sarah Jo White's costumes are also very authentic. Performances are this production's strongest asset. Kevin Viol's breakdown between Act I and II is hilarious. While Joseph Weins' character stays mostly static throughout the play, his commitment to the grossness of extreme masculinity echos Marlon Brando as Stanley Kowalksi. Shattered Globe's production of "True West" shows their knack for bringing topical themes to classic works. 

 

Through Oct 22nd. Shattered Globe Theatre. 1229 W Belmont Ave. www.theaterwit.com

 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Tuesday, 13 September 2016 14:39

Paramount's Mamma Mia! About As Fun As it Gets

The plot is simple enough. Donna Sheridan raises her daughter Sophie now twenty-years-old, on a Greek island where she runs a small island resort. Sophie, about to get married, wants to be walked down the aisle by her father. Problem is, she doesn’t know who her father is. A bit of snooping through her mother’s diary offers three possibilities, leading her to invite each to her wedding, much to her mother’s chagrin as Bill Austin (Steve O’Connell), Harry Bright (Michael Gillis) and Sam Carmichael (Jeff Diebold) show up to the island where Sophie figures to find out which is her real father. Again, the plot isn’t very complicated. But we do not see Mamma Mia! for its plot, we see it because it’s Abba charged soundtrack is fun, the set and costumes are colorful, the dance numbers are contagious and the show has a good share of laughs. Simple, light and fun - the perfect anecdote to escape from the daily, or not-so-daily, doldrums so many of us endure, if even for two hours and twenty minutes.

 

Currently running at Paramount Theater in Aurora, we get a production equipped with a slightly different set from the traditional Mamma Mia! look fans have come to known, and it works quite well. Accompanied by a full backdrop flooded with video projections of waves gently making their way to the shoreline and trees with leaves softly blowing in the wind, it’s easy to get lost in the rich island atmosphere. Though the set design limits the larger dance numbers, this production makes it work with its own unique choreography that rivals most other presentations. 

 

A strong ensemble bolsters a capable cast, the musical numbers strongest during choruses or added backing vocals. Though Amy Montgomery as Donna can carry a tune, her voice is just enough to warrant her taking on the leading role. However, she is often strengthened by surrounding cast members during harmonies, and by the way – the harmonies throughout the show are fantastic across the board! But Montgomery clearly has the personality and charisma for the role, overall making her casting sensible. Donna’s two sidekicks Tanya (Jennifer Knox) and Ali (Sara Sevigny) are wonderfully played, each character getting their respective laughs and admirably tackling their vocal duties. Sevigny truly shines as Ali during her duet with Bill, “Take A Chance On Me” displaying a great sense of comic timing (as well as O’Connell), while Knox hits one out of the park in her gritty number “Does Your Mother Know” showing off her dancing prowess in a heated exchange with Pepper, the young flirt who has eyes for her since her arrival to the island. 

 

We can easily buy into Dieblod, Gillis and O’Connell as Donna’s three past love interests, each also adding to the production with fine vocal offerings and just the right touch of physical humor. Diebold is no stranger to the role of Sam Carmichael having toured with Mamma Mia! on the Broadway North American Tour.    

 

Still, you can’t have a successful production of Mamma Mia! without a strong Sophie, and Kiersten Frumkin is just that. Vocally on par for each of her many numbers, Frumkin is able to capture the essence of Sophie, projecting a true sense of wonder, hope and elation into her role, creating a believable twenty-year-old optimist that we can’t help but relate with and root for. 

 

Though Mamma Mia! is far from a profound life lesson, it does promote self-acceptance in many ways and leaves us with hope that past mistakes can sometimes be corrected, even if twenty years later. 

 

With one Abba hit after another Mamma Mia! grabs its audience from its opening number “I Have a Dream” and doesn't let go until after its finely built crescendo finale number “Waterloo”, where each seat in the theater is now empty due to its occupants dancing and clapping along with the cast. 

 

Mamma Mia! is the feel good night out everyone can use to take in some great music and have some healthy laughs that will have audience members wanting to do it all over again. Mamma Mia! is being performed at Paramount Theatre through October 30th. For tickets and/or more show information visit www.paramountaurora.com. 

 

As Sophie sings along with Bill, Harry and Sam, “Thank you for the music”.

Recommended.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews
Monday, 12 September 2016 13:59

House’s Mr. Punch Shows the Way to Do It

It’s the beginning of a puppet-laden season in theatre this fall. Victory Gardens will be performing Hand to God, the story of a boy whose hand puppet is possessed by the devil, and later in the season, Writers Theatre will produce The Hunter and the Bear, their latest collaboration with Pigpen Theatre Company, which is expected to include the use of shadow puppets as storytelling devices. But first, The House Theatre of Chicago is now presenting their newest original work, A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch, a show which explores a fictionalized origin for England’s popular family annihilating marionette, and the minds of the people who came up with him. Featuring the best products of The House’s beloved design team, Mister Punch is a technical marvel, though the script by Kara Davidson is slow to start.

The earliest record of Punch and Judy shows comes from the seventeenth century, and the show is set slightly after that. Punch’s illegal immigrant Italian creator, Pietro Bologna (Adrian Danzig), ekes out an existence while dodging the authorities, as does the thief and street urchin, Charlotte (Sarah Cartwright). Fate brings them together, and Pietro decides he could use her as a bottler, the assistant who introduces shows and collects money. Disguised as a boy named Charlie, Charlotte is initially awful, but the puppets capture her imagination. They have inner life, Pietro tells her, though he guards his creations jealously, and insists that mass murder is the only acceptable ending for Mr. Punch’s stories. When Charlotte learns that Pietro visits a prostitute, Polly (Echaka Agba), whom he regards more as a mistress, she hopes that a softer side of her master might manifest through the puppets if she could only capture some of that affection in the play. But circumstances, and Pietro’s true disposition, are not so kind.

Lee Keenan’s scenic design is similar to the circus theme used in The House’s recently remounted Death and Harry Houdini, only this time, commedia dell’arte masks and puppet pieces dangle from the rafters. John Fournier’s original music contains several unnerving melodies, though naturally, few can compare with the props designed by Eleanor Kahn or with the puppets themselves, created by Jesse Mooney-Bullock. The leering grins of Punch, the crocodile, and the other denizens of his world look even more grotesque in the masks worn by the live actors (costumes by Izumi Inaba). Punch, played by Johnny Arena, appears in the flesh during scenes in which his puppeteers are acting him out, as do Judy (Carolyn Hoerdemann), his much-abused acquaintance, Joey (Joey Steakley), and his other victims. Though The House prides itself on innovative storytelling, few scenes in the show could be more highly theatricalized than these.

Or, at least, that will probably be the case after a few more runs. Though puppetry is often clumsy, more than was optimal seemed to be going wrong at opening, which distorted the pace of the comedy and caused some hesitancy among the actors during fight scenes. This has happened at other House shows, which were able to recover gracefully, but his time, the script was unfocused in the first act to the point where the performers didn’t have much to return to. In the second act, Davidson found her thread, and director Shade Murray was able to put together a story that was as alarming as it was open-ended. But in the first act, precious time was lost to self-indulgent interludes such as the main antagonist doing an impression of House artistic director Nathan Allen.

As annoying as some of the missed opportunities were, what happens in the second act more than redeems the show. We see Danzig’s Pietro as he truly is—not nearly as monstrous as his creation, but enough like him to confuse and disquiet the girl who can’t help seeing him as a friend. Cartwright’s performance takes over near the end, as with increasing desperation she attempts to turn the world of “cathartic violence” Pietro has devised into something kinder and more hopeful. Ironically, the scene which the opening night audience reacted the most viscerally to was one of the few instances of Pietro doing something truly altruistic, due to its graphic nature. The House strongly advises that this show is for teens, at the youngest. But for people able to enjoy and critique the Punch and Judy aesthetic, this show comes recommended.

A Comedical Tragedy for Mister Punch is being performed at the Chopin Theatre through October 23. Tickets are $30-35; for more information, visit TheHouseTheatre.com. Running time is two hours and fifteen minutes with one intermission.

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Naperville may be worth seeing just for its portrayal of T.C., a newly installed Caribou Coffee shop manager. When customers repeatedly ask after Nick, his popular predecessor, he replies by the book, “Nick no longer works here.”

We soon see that T.C. is desperate to succeed in his new job, hoping to avoid the fate of Nick, who was sacked for letting customers linger past closing time – the kind of thing that throws a monkey wrench into the central database to which the cash register, lights, locks and ever observant video monitors are linked. Welcome to 1984.

While T.C. is a parody, he is also a parable for our times. In their chain store incarnation, coffee shops are friendly places – within limits. As he warms to the customers, T.C. slips and reveals that “Nick will never work in this or any other Caribou Coffee again.” As closing time nears, these customers have no intention of moving on despite T.C.’s angst-ridden and frantic efforts.

The problem with the rest of Naperville is that the roles are more caricatures than characters. Overweening Howard (Mike Tapeli), home to care for his sight-impaired mother Candice (Laura T. Fisher), is put upon as she needles him to get married. Howard ’s popular high school classmate, Anne (Abby Pierce), sequestered in a corner, broods over her poorly lived life while cobbling together a vaguely worthy history of Captain Joseph Naper. 

Playwright Mat Smart delivers steady laughs and Naperville is somewhat engaging, but toward the midpoint we start hankering for. . .meaning, as do the characters. Instead we have something more like a Seinfeld episode (you know,” nothing happens”) only it’s a bit less edgy.

Not to fault this cast. Abby Pierce has movie star quality. Mike Tepeli projects the protagonist as “everyman.” Charlie Strater as Roy perfectly evokes that untethered born-again character you hope to avoid in social settings. (And he draws our sympathy when he reveals his pain in answer to Howard’s, “What’s your deal?”). Also, the set (Joe Shermoly), props (Amanda Hermann) and costumes (Christine Pascual) are pretty much perfect. Somewhat recommended, Naperville runs through October 16 at Theater Wit

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Amour, playing at the Atheneaum, is a jewel box of a show. This lighthearted musical (technically a comic opera) is profoundly entertaining, without needing to be profound. It is just plain fun.

With nearly no spoken dialog, the nine cast members sing their hearts out for 90 minutes. The music, lively and varied, stays fresh – and the libretto is sharp and humorous. These are all very talented, natural singers, who are well balanced and, with no electronic assist, sing dialog clearly, ever with an ear to a backstage orchestra – though small it is excellent. 

On key and in seemingly effortless harmony, the cast waltzes through a dozen different musical styles that hearken to the play’s roots. It was Tony nominated on Broadway in 2002, adapted from a 1997 Paris production. Numbers run the gamut from cabaret to jazzy Manhattan Transfer, grand opera, and everything in between.

The story line is delightfully simple: an office worker in dreary post-war Paris discovers he can walk through walls, turning his humdrum life into an adventure. Brian Fimoff as Dusoleil brings that Everyman quality to his role. 

Much credit must be given to Black Button Eyes Production for retrieving this treasure from the script vault. Their mission is to bring Chicago seldom-seen works containing elements of fantasy, in which magical and surreal invade reality. Mission accomplished.

Standouts include Missy Wise (as Claire/Whore), with a big voice and plenty of sass. Kevin Webb plays a Gendarme but his performance as a Nazi-like Boss in jodhpurs and riding crop is over the top funny. A real standout is Scott Gryder in three key roles: he is all Newsies as a newspaper vendor; very funny as frightened advocate; but he could give Paul Lynde a run for the money as office clerk Bertrand. 

And then there is THE VOICE: in this show, it's Emily Goldberg (playing Isabelle). Goldberg has it all: trained, expressive, and Broadway beautiful. (Goldberg, playing musical theater al around town, is certainly Broadway bound, so catch her locally while you can.) Fimoff pairs nicely with Goldberg in their duets, but he cannot match the rest of the troupe's volume when he is not belting.  

The Amour production itself is a tribute to what can be conjured up with minimalist but imaginative props and sets. It also is a testament to the audience's ability not just to suspend disbelief, but to join in the fantasy. 

Amour debuted in Paris in 1997, and its original libretto was adapted for Broadway in 2002 by Jeremy Sams. Music is by Michel Legrand, and the French libretto is by Didier Van Cauwelaert here in a witty English adaptation by Jeremy Sams. 

Amour, highly recommended, runs through October 8 at The Athenaeum Theatre

Published in Theatre Reviews
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