Theatre

King of the Yees, now playing at the Goodman Theatre through April 30, is full of laughs and wisdom. Both touching and endearing, the play - with themes of family, community and tradition - takes a look at one Chinese-American family’s attempt to bridge the generation gap.

 

Written by Lauren Yee and directed by Joshua Kahan Brody, King of the Yees features Lauren and her father Larry Yee as central characters in this off-beat, quirky, yet totally relevant production that explores the history of patriarchal family groups like the Yee Fung Toy association in San Francisco’s Chinatown.

 

King of the Yees is only kind of true—just like the stories your father once told you as a child,” said Lauren. “Growing up, I never understood what the Yee Fung Toy – a club of Yees – was, or why people were a part of it. With this play, I’ve been able to explore not only my own self-consciousness within my community, but it’s also shed light on how that is a universal experience. With every generation, there is a feeling of being unworthy and being unprepared to take up the cultural mantle. In a way, this play is a hero’s quest that celebrates those feelings of inadequacy.”

 

Established hundreds of years ago, family associations were a way to provide resources and community in the face of the discrimination that so many Chinese-American families experienced. These mainly men’s clubs became very powerful over the years. However, as a new generation began to take its place in world, these groups that limited the roles of women among other things, were often viewed as obsolete and unappealing.

 

King of the Yees examines that waning influence and the emotional impact on families in a performance that is infectious, interactive, metaphysical but always heartfelt.

 

Larry Yee, brilliantly played by Francis Jue, is the gregarious and engaging head of the Yee family association, which is dedicated to the preservation of the Yee line. Lauren (Stephenie Soohyun Park) is dismissive of the purpose and necessity of such a club and to the surprise and dismay of her father plans to move to Berlin with her Jewish husband. A disappointed Larry suddenly goes missing and Lauren’s frantic search for him takes her to an abstract world full of symbolism from the past with lessons for the future. That journey leads her not only to her father but to a better understanding of the family association and the community and traditions he is trying to preserve.

 

King of the Yees is filled with a small but versatile cast (Daniel Smith, Angel Lin and Rammel Chan) who capably play a variety of roles during the two-act production.

 

The set design is simple but effective, mainly consisting of a large ceremonial door that is very significant to the storyline. Also, the use of projections on the back wall of the stage was very creative. The design team includes William Boles (set), Izumi Inaba (costumes), Heather Gilbert (lighting), Mikhail Fiksel (sound) and Mike Tutaj (projections).  

 

Recommended.

 

King of the Yees runs through April 30 in the Owen Theatre at the Goodman. Tickets are available online at GoodmanTheatre.org/Yees.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Devastation permeates the set and plot of the Northlight Theatre’s Midwest premiere of By the Water – a powerful and moving production, written by Sharyn Rothstein and directed by Cody Estle, about a Staten Island, New York, family dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

 

Marty and Mary Murphy (Francis Guinan and Penny Slusher) fight to save in their storm-ravaged home and campaign to keep their neighborhood together even as their life-long neighbors and friends the Carters (Janet Ulrich Brooks and Patrick Clear) vow to leave and family secrets seep to the surface.

 

“In this play, natural disaster serves as a metaphor for the social and political change that forces generations to confront very real issues about their own lives – lives built on values that have become outmoded,” says Northlight Artistic Director BJ Jones. “Sharyn’s sharp sense of humor built on rich character development is sprinkled throughout, and the themes of justice and family values and loyalties emerge full-throated in her dialogue and her surprising plot.”

 

The Murphy’s are magnificently played by Guinan and Slusher, who give impressive performances imbuing the blue-collar couple with authenticity, humor and grit as they struggle to survive not only the brokenness of their community but the underlying betrayals within their family.

 

At the heart of this production is family and the idea that despite the mistakes and disloyalties as exemplified in the tattered relationship of brothers Sal Murphy (Jordan Brown) and Brian Murphy (Joel Reitsma), and the back-and-forth power struggle between Sal and his father Marty, that love and forgiveness can prevail and second chances are possible. Nowhere is this more evident than with Brian, who after a stint in jail, manages to find a second chance at love with Emily (played by Amanda Drinkall).

 

“[By the Water} is about confronting deep-seated personal problems in the face of a generational divide and finding a way to move forward,” Estle notes.

 

Rothstein developed the idea for the play after visiting Staten Island after Hurricane Sandy.

 

“Leaving behind a community, a lifetime of memories, seemed like an enormous leap of faith and an incredibly difficult decision, but the destruction was gut wrenching,” she says. “Yet, in front of one neat, clearly beloved house, a man who looked to be in his sixties was tending his lawn. With his whole neighborhood in ruins, with the majority of his neighbors already gone or figuring out how to leave, here was a man clearly standing firm. The image of him standing there amid so much loss was the genesis of my play.”

 

And that imagery is so indelibly visible in this production, which manages to peel back so many unexpected and complex layers while remaining thoroughly entertaining from its opening moments with the very effective sound effects to its poignant end. What makes this play so touching is not only the dynamic script and incredibly talented cast but the simple yet powerful stage design that evokes loss and pain as well a sense of home and place.

 

The creative team behind By the Water includes: Jeffrey D. Kmiec (scenic design), JR Lederie (lighting design), Rachel Laritz (costume design), Lindsay Jones (sound design) and Mara Filler (stage manager).

 

Highly recommended.

 

By the Water is playing at the Northlight Theatre in Skokie, Illinois, until April 23. Tickets are available at online at northlight.org.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago delivered a powerful evening of dance, on the opening night of its Season 39 Springs Series at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance.

 

The evening began with Lucas Crandall’s Imprint, a stark and physically compelling piece featuring the full company: Jacqueline Burnett, Alicia Delgadillo, Alice Klock, Emilie Leriche, Adrienne Lipson, Ana Lopez, and Jessica Tong as well as Jesse Bechard, Michael Gross, Elliot Hammans, Jason Hortin, Florian Lochner, David Schultz, and Kevin J. Shannon.

 

The amazing choreography was inspired in part by stampedes, according to Crandall. The dance was accompanied by live, improvised percussion from Hubbard Street Dancer David Schultz, whose pounding beat gave a rhythm to the chaotic scenes as dancers convulsed in groups, then separated, ran, fell, paused and then stepped over the fallen. The first half of the work evoked an almost futuristic and robotic feel, while the second half was more simple and bare, primitive and untamed, also exposing how crowds build, move and panic.

 

Choreographed by Nacho Duato, the second piece, Violoncello, from his evening length work, Multiplicity. Forms of Silence and Emptiness, is a two-act tribute to composer Johann Sebastian Bach, performed to Bach’s Suite No. 1 in G major. Captivatingly executed by Ana Lopez and Florian Lochner, Violoncello was a vision of exquisite movement showing the interplay – push and pull - between instrument and composer.

 

Earthy, muted yet evoking the passion of struggle, the next dance Jardí Tancat (Catalonian for “Closed Garden), also created by Duato, is based on a collection of ancient Spanish folk songs recorded by vocalist María del Mar Bonet. Hauntingly, three couples: Jacqueline Burnett, Michael Gross, Alicia Delgadillo, Kevin J. Shannon, Jessica Tong, and Jesse Bechard, show the movements of sowing, planting, and threshing, of the barren Catalonian land. Laced throughout the very moving piece is a spirit of perseverance and hope despite the hardships.

 

Completing the evening’s lineup was Solo Echo by Crystal Pite. It is stunning from its opening moments as glimmering lights filter down on a solo figure who is eventually joined by other dancers in very familial and interconnected movements. Dancers for Solo Echo included: Jesse Bechard, Jacqueline Burnett, Alicia Delgadillo, Michael Gross, Jason Hortin, Emilie Leriche, and Florian Lochner.

 

It “presents a man reckoning with himself at the end of his life,” explains Pite. “The character is echoed — copied, reiterated, by seven different dancers. He is portrayed through both male and female bodies, and through various physiques and strengths. Each performer is a distinct and nuanced version of the character, and the connections between them evoke a man coming to terms with himself.”

 

Hubbard Street Dance’s Season 39 is off to a very commanding start with an impressive body of work in its Spring Series. Part of a three-part program, additional series performances include: DANC(E)VOLVE: New Works Festival May 11–14, 2017 at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago and Summer Series, June 8–11, 2017 at the Harris Theater.

Season 39 three-series subscriptions are available online at hubbardstreetdance.com/subscribe.

 

Published in Dance in Review
Monday, 06 March 2017 19:22

On the Run with Marriott's Madagascar

Charming, colorful and inventive, the Marriot Theater’s Madagascar – A Musical Adventure, for young audiences, is a fun-filled ride with themes that will surely resonate with both kids and adults.

 

Based on the popular 2005 film by DreamWorks Animation, Madagascar centers around four main characters from the Central Park Zoo: Alex the Lion (Russell Mernagh), Marty the Zebra (James Earl Jones II), Melman the Giraffe (Stephen Schellhardt), and Gloria the Hippo (Rashada Dawan).

 

At first glance this fun-loving group seems happy enough to perform for park visitors, especially the king of the jungle, Alex the Lion, who is in his element prancing around the stage, showing off his perfected “roar”. But when presented with the idea of freedom by a cadre of hilarious and enterprising penguins who say “it’s not natural to be in a zoo,” Marty the Zebra, to the surprise of his friends, makes a run for it.

 

Having lived their entire lives in captivity, Alex, Melman and Gloria are shocked that Marty would even consider leaving the comfortable life of the Central Park Zoo. But in the spirit of true friendship, they push their misgivings aside and embark on a rip-roaring adventure that eventually lands them in the exotic wilds of Madagascar.

 

The quirky and pompous lemur King Julien (wonderfully played by Jonathan Butler-Duplessis) is a joy to watch as he tries to incorporate Alex, Marty, Melman and Gloria, in his masterplan to rid the island of the fossa who hunt and attack his fellow lemurs. However, this plan goes awry as Alex, who now has to fend for himself in the wild, can’t contain his animal instincts and attacks Marty.

 

Directed and choreographed by Matt Raftery, Madagascar – A Musical Adventure, hits all the right notes in “crack-a-lackin’” style as Mernagh and Jones also shine in their roles with both chemistry and good-natured fun, as they show that in the end true friendship can overcome even the “laws of nature”.

 

Perhaps of the best moment of the production is the high-energy rendition of “Move It, Move It!” which gets the crowd clapping and kids, as well as adults, up on their feet.

 

Colorful costume and props really enhance the performance, bringing this animated favorite vividly to life. “Madagascar is already an established idea,” said Jesus Perez, costume designer and assistant director, “but since this is a live production and not a movie, it has opened up a world of creativity for us. This is the perfect vehicle for me as a designer to bring this fantastical world to life.”

 

The talented cast, which also includes: Leah Morrow as “Skipper,” Liam Quealy as “Kowalski,” Laura Savage as “Mort and Private,” Elena Romanowski as “Rico,” Samantha Pauly as “Maurice,” and Jed Feder as “Mason,” won’t disappoint as they sing and dance to some of your favorite tunes from the movie.

 

Recommended

 

All performances are followed by a question and answer session with the cast.

 

Madagascar – A Musical Adventure, playing at the Marriott Theater located in the Lincolnshire Marriott Resort, runs through April 15 Tuesdays through Sundays at 10 a.m. with certain performances at 12:30 p.m. For more information and tickets, visit www.marriotttheatre.com.

 

Published in Theatre in Review

Never has a play about journalism, the presidency and Cold War with Russia seemed more relevant than now. And The Columnist, performed by The American Blues Theater at Stage 773, is all of that and more. In a story that could have easily been set during today’s heated political environment, The Columnist is a scintillating tale of family, power, betrayal and personal struggle.

 

Written by the Pulitzer and Tony award-winning author David Auburn and directed by Keira Fromm, The Columnist is based on real-life journalists Joe Alsop (Philip Earl Johnson) and his brother Stewart Alsop (Coburn Goss). Once a power writing duo, the play begins with Joe, now one of America’s most influential columnists - both feared and beloved, caught in a revealing and compromising position in a Moscow hotel.

 

That affair and its consequences runs like an undercurrent throughout the entire play as we see Joe battle for power, his ideas on what American exceptionalism entails and how the president (both John F. Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson) should achieve it no matter the costs. We also see his struggle to keep his private life separate from the illusion he creates for the public.

 

Johnson is exquisite and brilliant in the role of Joe Alsop and very capably humanizes such a towering political figure of the time.

 

Joe is a man who loves his country and family with equal and blinding passion but in the rapidly changing world of the 1960’s, against the backdrop of the Vietnam war, his inability to see beyond his own beliefs pushes away those closest to him. He manages to alienate even some of his most ardent admirers and colleagues.

 

However, despite the growing distance between Joe and his family – his perfectly cast, dutiful and charming wife Susan (played by the equally charming Kymberly Mellen), his precocious stepdaughter Abigail (Tyler Meredith) and his sincere and loyal brother Stewart, what is conveyed even at some of his lowest points is how much they still love him despite his many flaws.

 

Stewart and Abigail are perhaps two of Joe’s most pivotal relationships. Several key moments come when they both show not only how much they understand him, as well as what drives him, but also their acceptance of the contradiction of his public figure and private life. This understanding and acceptance comes even though they often disagree with his passionate defense of the war as well as his methods of squashing the dissenting views of fellow journalists. Both Goss and Meredith play their roles with such depth and nuance that it’s easy to feel their characters’ compassion for such a complex man.

 

The ability of Auburn to delve so deeply into these relationships and to keep the plot moving at the fast pace of an intriguing spy novel is impressive. Also, very impressive and effective is the staging and the way several of the more dramatic moments are highlighted, especially during transitions. After several poignant and emotional scenes, having Joe stand in a single spotlight as the darkened set changes behind him is a powerful effect, and whether intended or not, is a reflection of the often-tumultuous changes happening in his life.

 

The creative team for The Columnist: Joe Schermoly (scenic design), Christopher J. Neville (costume design), Jared Gooding (lighting design), Christopher Kriz (original music and sound design), Alec Long (props design), Sarah E. Ross (production manager), Eva Breneman (dialect coach), Sara Illiatovitch-Goldman (dramaturg), and Dana M. Nestrick (stage manager), does an amazing job of enhancing an already powerful script and showcasing as Joe says: “human intercourse at its sublimely ridiculous.”

 

Highly recommended

 

American Blues Theater’s The Columnist runs through April 1, 2017, at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets are available in online at americanbluestheater.com.

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Monday, 13 February 2017 16:02

Carmen: Love in the Time of Rebellion

The heart wants what the heart wants and the fiery, rebellious Carmen, in the self-titled opera now playing at Lyric Opera of Chicago, follows that truism all the way to a tragic end. Set against the backdrop of Seville, Spain, during the Spanish Civil War of the 1900's, we see obsession, passion, freedom and love all come together in this story of a deadly love triangle.

 

Don José (Joseph Calleja), a soldier in the army, is sent to break up a fight at a cigarette factory. There he meets the seductive gypsy Carmen (Ekaterina Gubanova). He becomes so enthralled and bewitched by her that he abandons his childhood sweetheart Micaëla (Eleanor Buratto) and deserts his post just to follow her. But the tighter he tries to hold on their love the more Carmen longs to be free. José eventually loses her to the toreador (bull fighter) Escamillo (Christian Van Horn), resulting in a heartrending ending.

 

It is difficult to root for the love of Don José and Carmen, especially as the opera unfolds and we see how brutal and abusive José can be. Nothing is more discordant than seeing José sing about the depth of his love for Carmen after he just threw her across a table. There is no doubt that he believes he loves her and loves her deeply – he gave up everything to follow her. But perhaps the real question is does he know her or is he just enraptured by a seductive illusion that he couldn’t resist?

 

Don José consistently tries to get Carmen to bend to his will and be framed by his restrictive love. But Carmen’s will is just too strong, her lust for life too vivid and her need for freedom too all-encompassing to be captured in his stranglehold of love.

 

Carmen later meets Escamillo, the celebrated bull fighter and hero, who dares to love her for who she is – a rebellious bird. After all her wanderings she has finally found a home and true love but it comes at a very high price.

 

This thrilling story of Carmen is revealed through soaring, passionate arias; spoken dialogue; a beautiful score of Georges Bizet’s popular and very recognizable music; and ballet.

 

The addition of the ballet dancers adds so much more to the telling of the story. In particular, the bull which is used as a visual symbol throughout the production depicting both a disastrous love affair and a man caught in a flaming tailspin. We see the bull at key points during the opera from the opening moments all the way to the tragic end where Escamillo’s bull fight occurs simultaneously with Don José and Carmen’s final fight.

 

Ekaterina Gubanova is brilliant as Carmen while Joseph Calleja is equal to the task as Don Jose. 

 

Recommended.

 

Carmen is performed in French with projected English translations and the running time is approximately 3 hours and 5 minutes, including 1 intermission.

 

The opera runs through March 25 at Lyric’s Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive, Chicago. Performance dates are Feb. 11, 22, 28, Mar. 3, 6, 22, 25 at 7:30pm; Feb. 15, 19, Mar. 16, 19 at 2:00pm. For tickets and information, call (312) 827-5600 or click here.

 

 

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

Mozart’s The Magic Flute, now playing at the Lyric Opera of Chicago is an enchanting and charming performance - a perfect family outing especially for the holiday season.

 

Based on Mozart’s final and majestic opera, The Magic Flute is a timeless tale of good versus evil, perseverance, and love conquering all.

 

The basic storyline revolves around Princess Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night who has been captured by the high priest Sarastro. Prince Tamino falls in love with a portrait of Pamina he receives from the queen’s three ladies. The queen tells Tamino that if he finds Pamina, she will be his. Papageno, the queen's birdcatcher, joins him on the quest. Aided by Tamino’s magic flute and Papageno’s magic bells, they face numerous challenges separately and together, including an encounter with the comically savage Monostatos, who lusts after Pamina. Three genies are their guides. Eventually, the Queen of the Night is vanquished, Tamino and Pamina are united, and Papageno finds love with Papagena as the queen's forces of evil yield to the forces of good. 

 

Directed by Neil Armfield, the staging of the Lyrics’ version of the Magic Flute is not only inventive with the use of the “play within a play” technique but it also is accessible with a warm familial glow, making it an enjoyable experience for opera lovers and newcomers alike.

 

With the theme of a backyard party, the show opens with a lovely 1950's Midwestern-style colonial home, designed by Dale Ferguson, filling the stage and slowly rotating as bright stars glitter in the backdrop like spotlights shining down on the performance that is taking place.

 

The house buzzes with activity as a diverse group of people arrive carrying packages and other items as they prepare for a bit of “backyard community theater” in a production put on by the neighborhood kids.

 

Perfectly designed rooms from the upstairs bedroom to the dining room and kitchen below are glimpsed through the windows revealing small vignettes of preparation for the evening performance. One neighbor hangs lights along the backyard deck and others set up chairs for the audience and operate the spotlights.

 

Then finally, after every piece is in place, the neighbors are seated. The kids' show begins and the real audience is transported into a land of fantasy with soaring arias. In particular, soprano Kathryn Lewek in her Lyric debut as Queen of the Night and bass-baritone Adam Plachetka, as Papageno (the queen's birdcatcher) were vocal standouts but the entire cast was sublime.

 

Highly recommended.

 

The Magic Flute runs until January 27 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. There is a free 30-minute pre-performance talk in the theater starting an hour before each performance. For tickets and information call (312) 827-5600 or go to www.lyricopera.org/Flute.

 

Published in Theatre in Review
Friday, 11 November 2016 23:15

Lovers and the Dearly Departed

With all the earmarks of a romantic comedy, First Floor Theater’s “Deer and the Lovers,” now playing at The Den Theatre, offers up of a barrel of laughs along with serious reflections threaded throughout.

 

Written by Emily Zemba and directed by Jesse Roth, the 100-minute play dives deep into the relationships of the four main characters that come face-to-face with death and betrayal while on a weekend retreat at a cottage house in the woods of New Hampshire.

 

Deer and the Lovers opens with Peter (Alex Stage) and Qiana (Shadee Vossoughi) arriving for a romantic get-away at her parents’ home. However, those plans were spoiled not only by the discovery of a dead deer that crashed through the front window but also the unexpected arrival of Peter’s sister Marnie (Kay Kron) and brother-in-law Felix (Tony Santiago).

 

With plenty of jokes and puns on the dearly departed animal, it becomes clear that Zemba intends for the deer to serve as a metaphor for Qiana and her path in life. For instance, while Peter is able to madly declare his love, Qiana seems less sure of her affections in comparison. And the later arrival of Marnie and Felix at the cottage shines a bright light on just why that is the case as we watch both couples deal with issues of love, commitment, secrecy and betrayal.

 

Qiana, in particular, seems obsessed with how to dispose of the deer and how it met its current fate: How did it get in the house and why? Where was it going and what was it running from? These are all questions that she can pose about her own path as well and the answers are equally elusive.

 

Later conversations with the mysterious local animal control agent Lenny (Matt Nikkila) in the second half of the play further illustrate Qiana’s connections with the deer.

 

After a dramatic reveal, we see her frantically taking matters in her own hands as she drags the deer into the woods in an attempt to bury it herself. It is almost as if she feels that finding a final resting place for the animal will bring it peace and free her from the soulless, emptiness she feels inside. And it is at that point that the symbolism of the setting in New Hampshire with its motto – Live Free or Die – becomes even more relevant.

 

Fascinating and quirky, Deer and the Lovers is time well spent. The talented cast meshes well and is effective in hitting all of the comedic points in rhythm while also delivering the soul-searching undercurrents.

 

Recommended

 

Deer and the Lovers is currently playing at The Den Theatre until December 3. Tickets are available at www.firstfloortheater.com. 

 

Published in Theatre in Review

True gamers, especially nostalgic ones, will appreciate The New Colony’s world premiere of Merge. Closing out its 2016 season, this 90-minute, fast-paced, and often funny, performance at the Den Theatre’s Upstairs Main Stage spotlights the roller-coaster history of Atari, a pioneer manufacturer of video arcade games.

 

Written by Spenser Davis and directed by Andrew Hobgood, Merge provides an inside look at the tumultuous ups and downs of the video game company from its start in the early 1970's.

 

The script is Davis’ first original full-length play. Submitted through The New Colony’s writers program, it made quite an impression on company members. “Merge was the rare instance of a story flying off the page with such ferocity that Andrew and I needed to get our ensemble in the room immediately,” said Co-Artistic Director Evan Linder. “Spenser Davis’ hilarious and insightful script will welcome onstage the largest cast The New Colony has assembled since our first season.”

 

Despite the size, Hobgood’s staging of the huge 16-member cast in such a small space was mostly effective. However, at times, when the full cast was onstage, the fast-talking and screaming could be a bit overwhelming.

 

The set design was one of the biggest stars of this production with a video arcade cabinet as the backdrop along with a bright neon color scheme.

 

The opening action starts in the late 70's around the time Atari, hugely successful with its arcade and home console video games but cash-strapped, merged with Warner Bros. Atari employees are frazzled by the corporate takeover and the impact ricochets throughout the company as key players leave. Pot smoking, Jacuzzi parties and eccentric behaviors had fueled Atari’s workplace during its rise. When they have to sell to Warner Bros. to stay afloat, along with the influx of corporate cash comes corporate structure and new requirements, including wearing socks.

 

The use of the flashback technique and flexible, moving set pieces allow the action to flow seamlessly back through time as the audience is quickly introduced to Atari co-founders Nolan Bushnell and Ted Dabney. Like a video game version of the odd couple, these two opposite personalities are behind one of the fastest growing companies in America.

 

Their different styles, business philosophy, especially on how to handle lawsuits from competition, and Bushnell’s hard-driving ambition, eventually force Dabney out of the company. Ironically Bushnell himself is ousted as CEO after the Warner Bros. merger, paving the way for a more straight-laced chief in Stuart Nygard.  It was this move that prompted many of the remaining programmers who had been with Atari from the beginning to jump ship and align with a competing company.

 

In one of the more fascinating, yet somewhat out-of-place scenes, a courtroom battle that feels more like an episode of “Wild ‘N Out” ensues between Warner Bros. and that rival. Dabney returns at a pivotal moment providing information that will not only have long-lasting repercussions for Warner Bros. but the video game industry as a whole.

 

Merge is creative and fun and packs a lot of history in 90 minutes. A huge and high-energy cast and creative staging keep the story moving in a compelling fashion.

 

Recommended

 

Merge is now playing at The Den Theatre’s Upstairs Main Stage through November 13, 2016. Tickets are available at www.thenewcolony.org.

Published in Theatre Reviews
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