Theatre in Review

John Accrocco

John Accrocco

Thursday, 19 November 2015 21:15

Review: Fulfillment at American Theatre Company

Sex sells as the old adage goes. It may be marketable, but you have to ask yourself what it has to say. Likely sex will dominate the discussion among patrons of Thomas Bradshaw's new play at American Theater Company. With bold direction by Ethan McSweeney, Fulfillment will undoubtedly ruffle some subscriber feathers. 


The play begins with Michael (Stephen Conrad Moore) purchasing a multi-million dollar apartment in Soho and describing his sexual relationship with his coworker, Sarah (Erin Barlow). She soon puts the idea in his head that he isn't being made partner at the law firm because of his race. Whether it's true or not becomes subject to interpretation as the rest of Michael's life begins to spiral out of control. 


Bradshaw's script is flawed in that it's not enough about any one thing to really grasp at a central narrative or question. If it's a play about the inequality of underrepresented groups (African Americans and women) it never really connects the dots in the way that say, Disgraced does. If it's a play about American desire for more and more, why isn't the main character greedier? 


The scenes are too copious and too short to get down to anything significant. In fact, there's never really any rational conflict between characters, or at least none that lead to anything consequential. More often it's a story about a man who has trouble with his neighbor and the occasional drinking binge. The unfortunate part is that the dialog is actually really strong and incredibly well-acted, but in the end, it doesn't really add up to much. 


Perhaps even more distracting are the numerous instances of gratuitous stage sex and full frontal nudity that cross the line of good taste. It seems to be an overused, if not unnecessary, gimmick on which this play too heavily relies. Maybe if the material was edgy enough to justify the graphic content, it would seem more vital. Mostly it just comes off as a desperate attempt to shock audiences. 


Through December 13th at American Theater Company. 1909 W Byron Street. 





Wednesday, 18 November 2015 21:03

Review: Never the Sinner at Victory Gardens

Apparently thrill-killing isn't a new sign of the gradual breakdown of society. John Logan's historical thriller "Never the Sinner" explores the trial of wealthy, local killers Leopold and Loeb in what was once hailed as the crime of the century. Director Gary Griffin brings this story to life in an exciting new production at Victory Gardens Theater. 


Logan's wordy script has the potential to be really dull, even with the gory details. That's not the case with this quick-moving production. Set against a minimal set draped in peacock damask, Griffin's staging makes the telling active. Each twist and turn in the tabloid drama is accented by slick reporters. The cheeky headlines pose the question whether there's profit in crime? And if so, who benefits from a court room sideshow? Certainly not the victim. It also serves to underscore that in America, we're all just rubber-neckers happy that a crime didn't happen to us. 


A play like "Never the Sinner" is really only as strong as its Leopold and Loeb and luckily they’ve got two great actors. Japhet Balaban plays the part of introverted Nathan Leopold and he's unnervingly creepy. His attention to diction is a wise character choice. While Loeb technically carried out the crimes, Balaban's Leopold has the Norman Bates-type aloofness that most serial killers tend to possess. Jordan Brodess' Loeb balances the rage and panache which likely serves Logan's point that some people will sink to deplorable depths for fame in America. 


The true surprise of this story is their country lawyer Darrow played Keith Kupferer. Kupferer is known for his "every man" roles, and this show will prove a high point for him. Of course the knee-jerk reaction to brutal murder committed by two remorseless college boys makes us demand the ultimate penalty: death. Logan uses this real-life instance to debate the ethics of the death penalty. In high profile cases up to this point in history, rarely was the philosophy of capital punishment ever questioned. Even in our times it’s a hard question without an easy answer. Ultimately Logan uses this shlockey murder trial to ask the audience, is killing in the name of justice, just? 


Through December 6th at Victory Gardens Theater - 2433 N Lincoln Ave. 




Wednesday, 07 October 2015 11:46

Marvin's Room at Theatre Wit in Chicago

What would you do if a stranger asked you for something as simple as a bone marrow transplant? What would you do if someone gave you a life shattering diagnosis? The appropriate reaction seems obvious but as many things in reality are, it's always more complicated.

"Marvin's Room" is the story of Bessie (Linda Reiter), who cares for her near-death father and feeble aunt (Deanna Dunagan). When she's diagnosed with leukemia she has to reach out to her estranged sister Lee (Rebecca Jordan) in hopes of a bone marrow transplant. Lee is dealing with her own struggles with oldest son Hank (Nate Santana) but makes the trip from Ohio to Florida for the tests.

(left to right) Nate Santana, Kyle Klein II, Rebecca Jordan, Linda Reiter and Deanna Dunagan in Shattered Globe Theatre’s 25 anniversary production of MARVIN’S ROOM by Scott McPherson, directed by Sandy Shinner. Photo by Michael Brosilow.

Under the direction of Sandy Shinner, Shattered Globe presents a very faithful revival. Never once does it devolve into melodrama. In fact, it's as if Shinner has hunted out the moments of lightness and heightened them to overshadow the darker moments. Linda Reiter's performance as Bessie is exceptionally relatable. Rebecca Jordan, though usually providing the comic relief, is impenetrable enough to support the bittersweet ending. Deanna Dunagan as simple-minded Aunt Ruth is endlessly charming. This play is fairly grounded in a 1990s sitcom style humor. Though the themes are ever-relevant, it is almost thirty years old and now somewhat of a period piece. Set designer Nick Mozak embraces the aesthetic. 

Scott McPherson's modern classic "Marvin's Room" has a rich legacy in Chicago. McPherson was a Chicago actor and writer and the Goodman gave this play its world premiere in 1990. Unfortunately McPherson died of AIDS related complications before he could enjoy the success of his work. He wrote "Marvin's Room" in response to the cyclical care-taking his community was experiencing in the early years of the AIDS epidemic.

"Marvin's Room" is not a tragedy. Despite its unpleasant subject matter, it's more about the quality of love in a life rather than the quantity of years. Bessie is a giver and in that, a receiver of love. Lee is a taker, and has a hard time expressing love. Somewhere in between Bessie has to make peace with the fear of disappointing her loved ones and Lee has to learn to show love. (John J Accrocco)

At Theatre Wit through November 14th. 1229 W Belmont Ave. (773) 975-8150

What can be said about a play as often produced as 'Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' With every company that takes on this landmark play, a new audience is given the opportunity to spend an electrifying evening with George and Martha. As legend has it, Mr. Albee is quite stringent about his work and demands absolute faithfulness to his scripts for fear of being shut down.


It would be impossible not to consider the Steppenwolf's 2010 Tony Award winning revival of 'Virginia Woolf' when discussing Chicago's relationship with this play. Any theatre company producing this play will rightfully have some serious competition. Though, under Jason Gerace's direction at Redtwist Theatre, you wouldn’t know it.


What Gerace and Redtwist have in their favor is an intimate performance space. For nearly three hours the audience sits among the living room furniture at George and Martha's. When the drinks slosh and the one-liners fly, it’s the audience who must shift to avoid getting hit. To that end, this highly atmospheric production feels more alive and certainly more first-hand. This is not an easy script to decipher, each line is almost a world onto itself, and it can be easy to zone out in the recesses of a large theatre. Here, the dialog seems very navigable, so as the intensity heats up it seems to unfold naturally.


Given the challenge of such intricate language, there's an inherent sense of staginess. Its sense of reality is thereby heightened by exceedingly articulate dialog. Jacqueline Grandt's Martha is just plain mean and the way she slithers through her cutting monologues is almost scary. Though her glimmers of fragility in such subtle gestures as watering eyes and quivering lip are hauntingly tragic. It underscores the character's emotional instability. Brian Parry plays George as the co-dependent husband who has reached his breaking point. The calm timbre of his voice never loses it's comforting sound even as he's putting the finishing touches on Martha and their guests. He's able to play it in the way that these characters get exactly what's coming to them. His triumph is very satisfying.


The parts of Nick and Honey can honestly be what makes or breaks this play. Their characters are largely only there to fuel the fire. Elizabeth Argus is pretty spot-on as Honey. Her look brings to mind Elaine from "The Graduate" and when she's called upon in a moment of dark revelation, she delivers. It's not easy to play fake drunk without coming off as a cartoon character. Argus is very believable as she stumbles through glass after glass of brandy.


Redtwist Theatre has a very competent production on their hands. Grandt and Parry really understand their lines and because of that, both turn in rich performances that quickly cut through the melodrama. The artistic staff at Redtwist has also made this production pleasing to the eye in costume and set design. If you need another night with George and Martha, this is a storefront revival not to be missed.



Through October 11th at Redtwist Theatre. 1044 W Bryn Mawr. 773-728-7529

Friday, 28 August 2015 12:10

Review: The Price at Timeline Theatre

Dorothy Parker once said, "If you want to know what god thinks of money, just look at the people he gave it to." Arthur Miller's 'The Price' centers itself around a middle aged couple getting on toward their golden years, but for them, it's not so golden. The horrors of The Great Depression have haunted Victor and Esther for years and now that they’re finally liquidating his father's shabby estate, they see glimmers of financial security.

While Victor has struggled for years, partly by choice and partly out of an obligation to care for his aging father, his brother Walter selfishly pursued wealth and stature. Will a chance meeting with an almost supernatural antique dealer pave the way for a reconciliation?

Timeline Theatre presents 'The Price' in a time much like the one it was originally presented in. While the recession of 2008 clearly didn't hit as hard as '29, the uneasy ripples are still being felt today. Director Louis Contey's intimate production feels fresh and modern. Since this is a lesser known Miller, you won't be coming to it with any high school English class biases.

The small ensemble here works well together. Kymberly Mellen as money-hungry Esther is both aggravatingly pathetic and also heartbreakingly true in a final moment so slight you might miss it. Her character is an interesting commentary on how Miller and popular culture must have felt about wives. Her costar, Bret Tuomi as Victor is good, but often seems disconnected from the character. Perhaps this was a flaw of Miller's script because large swaths of monolog from Roderick Peeples as Walter seem insincere at times too. 91 year old Mike Nussbaum as furniture dealer Solomon is by far the most endearing part of the show. There's a heaven-sent quality to this role which is uncharacteristic of Miller's solidly grounded work. Nussbaum's performance is very charming.

'The Price' at Timeline Theatre is a highly polished, and well designed play that will introduce a new generation to a minor, but no less important Arthur Miller classic. It's a history lesson in privation and a cautionary tale about the unpleasantries money brings to people's lives. It's also powerful story about what it means to choose between love and wealth.

At Timeline Theatre through November 22nd. 615 W Wellington Ave. 773.281.8463

It's not often you see the words erotic and Dachau in the same sentence. Bent by Martin Sherman is one of the few literary works to address homosexuality and the Nazis. Under the direction of Keira Fromm, The Other Theatre Company presents this Pulitzer Prize nominated play as part of their freshman season.

Bent calls to mind many of the same themes and issues raised by Christopher Isherwood in his novel The Berlin Stories, later to inspire the musical Cabaret. What makes these stories so fascinating is the alternative narrative to the well-known story of Hitler's persecution of Jews. What many don't know is that the Nazi regime persecuted gays, gypsies, the handicapped or anyone who was different. Also, that non-Jewish Germans simply went along with the darkening tide, terrified or unaware of its ultimate goal: ethnic cleansing.

Sherman set out to write a play that mirrored his own time, a closeted late 1970s on the cusp of the AIDS epidemic. While there are some glaring historical inaccuracies in this play - he makes his point. Philandering Max (Nik Kourtis) lives both and in and out of the closet as it suits him, until he finds himself imprisoned at Dachau for "perversion." While en route, he befriends fellow "queer" Horst (Alex Weisman) who helps him stay alive. Over the course of their internment at Dachau the two become lovers in uniquely staged sexual encounters.

While the play is quite faithful to its source material, the direction could have been stronger. Weisman is quite sure of himself and turns in a top notch performance as tragic Horst. Kourtis on the other hand stumbles through the emotional peaks and valleys of his anti-heroic character. By now, there are countless literary interpretations of the Holocaust and what this particular production misses is the bewilderment victims of concentration camps must have felt. These characters never seem to step back and address the atrocity and disbelief of the exaggerated instances of cruelty in the script. They're prematurely numb to the horrors of camp life and in the end, the inherent sense fear doesn't translate to the audience in the way many other Holocaust dramas have succeeded. The underlying themes get a little mixed up and you're never sure exactly what The Other Theatre Company would like you to take away.

Through July 26th at The Other Theatre Company. 3829 North Broadway. (773)528-9696

With Jaws having just swam back into theaters for its fortieth anniversary and recent shark attacks in North Carolina, The Ruckus' world premiere of 'Matawan' comes at a perfect time. Playwright Dan Caffrey set out to write a play that captures the time period of the early 1900s, an era he always felt was glossed over in school. This new work tells the story of a small New England town dealing with a killer shark. Sound familiar? The 1916 great white shark attacks off the coast of New Jersey were the basis for Peter Benchly's novel Jaws. Until 1916 very little was known about sharks and most people believed they did not attack bathers.

At it's core 'Matawan' is less a play about a man-eating shark and more about fear. Even the shark has a fear-soaked narrative throughout the show. The large cast of characters and well-written vignettes all deal with anxieties concerning war, globalization, disease and life happiness. For the first time in history, Americans were economically comfortable enough to have the luxury to look outside themselves and Caffrey captures this ever-relevant sense of impending doom that seems to consume most people today too.

One might wonder how it's possible to depict a shark attack on stage. Director Allison Shoemaker makes really bold choices with her production. Instead of gruesome displays of blood and guts, Shoemaker's attacks are almost sexual in nature. In fact, the entire production is so very craftily done. Actors play instruments to simulate sound effects and the result is genuinly creepy.

Caffrey delivers a truly unique script. The subject matter poses some obvious logistical problems but the creative team at The Ruckus show they're more than capable of taking on this challenge. Not only was the production insightful but also exceedingly well acted. How often can a shark make you misty? (John J Accrocco)

Through July 26th at The Athenaeum Theatre. 2963 N Southport Ave. 773-935-6860

Saturday, 13 June 2015 00:00

Review: Abraham Lincoln Was A F*gg*t

What do Michael Jackson and Abraham Lincoln have in common? Playwright Bixby Elliot explores the parallels between the sixteenth president, the king of pop and the landscape for LGBT youth in his new play “Abraham Lincoln was a Faggot” at About Face Theatre.

Elliot’s play follows two intertwining narratives in an attempt to answer the eternal question: was Abraham Lincoln gay? In the present, there is Cal (Matt Farabee), a high schooler coming to terms with his sexuality while trying to prove Lincoln’s orientation. In the past, there is the supposed story of Lincoln’s homosexual love affairs. In between are Cal’s terrified mother (Jessie Fisher) and uncle (Nathan Hosner) who must traverse the uneasy waters of an older generation’s attitude toward homosexuality.

Director Andrew Volkoff brings together a well-equipped cast for this show. Dana Black’s clowning as narrator, historian and Ellen Degeneres will likely be most remembered. She accents and punctuates nearly every scene and it brings a much needed sense of lightness. Jessie Fisher in a duel role as both Mary Todd Lincoln and Cal’s mother balances  eccentricity and subtlety.

Bixby’s script, even if at times extraneous, has a lot of heart and makes a lot of great points about our media obsessed culture. At first the Michael Jackson musical numbers and background tracks seem strangely out of place, but as the show continues the script points to two lives lived under grueling American scrutiny. The author writes from a much more closeted generation than our current times, but still the struggle to live a life that is true to oneself is the ultimate argument. This essential human necessity transcends race, gender, class and sexuality. The script is well-structured and under Volkoff’s direction, has a real sense of emotional authenticity that could be lost in such an inventive concept.

Through July 5th. At the Green House Theatre Center. 2257 N Lincoln Ave. 773-404-7336

Saturday, 30 May 2015 00:00

Review: Sideshow Theatre's "Chalk"

Known for staging eccentric new works, Sideshow Theatre’s production of Walt McGough’s “Chalk” is no exception. McGough serves as the literary manager for Sideshow Theatre and his play is receiving its world premiere in collaboration with Boston’s Fresh Ink Productions.

Peculiar is perhaps the best adjective to describe “Chalk.” Clocking in at just one hour, “Chalk” tells the tale of a woman (Kathleen Akerley) living in a post-apocalyptic world with her daughter (Nina O’Keefe). When her daughter returns with supplies, she notices her behavior is unusual. The story quickly devolves into an episode of “Twilight Zone.” While McGough’s script does an interesting thing in that it tries to humanize a typical horror/sci-fi story, the premise itself is weak. In such a short play, he never grounds the characters in any context. Maybe it doesn’t matter, but the lack of meat doesn’t satisfy the audience. In the end, despite McGough’s efforts, the play is a bit plot-heavy.

Director Meghan A. Smith has paired two really talented actresses together for “Chalk.” Nina O’Keefe is hilarious and her physicality is fun to watch. She brings a much needed intensity to the part. Kathleen Akerley gives a rich performance, often adding what’s not on the page with gesture and body language. She has a sense of the script, and it’s easy to trust her certainty in the dialog.

"Chalk" doesn’t overstay its welcome.  It does what a play should - tells an interesting story with a beginning, middle, and the conclusion is satisfying as plays should be. The deeper moments are good, but overshadowed.

Through June 28th at Victory Gardens Theatre. 2433 N Lincoln Ave. 773-871-3000

Tuesday, 26 May 2015 00:00

Review: "Les Liaisons Dangereuses"

What a thrill to see a costume piece with moderately contemporary dialog. Charles Hampton's adaptation of Choderlos de Laclos' "Les Liaisons Dangereuses" premiered during the height of theatrical decedance in the 1980s. Razor sharp wit borrowed from Laclos' 18th century epistolary novel about sexual conquest among bored aristocrats make this an extremely titillating and provocative piece. Just reading the text is tickling enough. The play garnered critical praise on Broadway, and was followed by an even more successful film starring Glenn Close and John Malkovich.

AshtonRep bites off a bit more than they can chew with their current production at the Raven Theatre in Edgewater. The problem with this production is casting. The role of the conniving Marquise de Merteuil is played with cool dignity by Sarah Pavlak McGuire, her composed cruelty is fascinating to watch. Unbalanced co-star and AshtonRep founder Robert Tobin takes up the role of Valmont. It's imperative that Valmont be a suave casanova, one who ebbs sex appeal. Tobin is neither. He also tends to misplace the dialog. He often delivers his lines with a confusing modern inflection on purposefully crafted antiquated phrasing.

Director Charlie Marie McGrath makes an interesting choice by changing the time period from pre-revolutionary France to pre-revolutionary Russia. Though, for what reason? Hampton's script leaves the audience with a powerful image conjured by projecting the silhouette of a guillotine on the background. It feels like a missed opportunity not to give this play the full depth it needs. The staging is well-conceived, running with the idea of a chamber drama, having the curtains drawn to accent scenes like storybook chapters.

All in all, AshtonRep presents a faithful production of "Les Liaisons Dangereuses." It's an ambitious play for an emerging theatre company to take on, but there is a great deal of chemistry between the female ensemble here. Hampton's script is sturdy and holds up well in an era in which most people are more familiar with the teenage re-telling "Cruel Intentions."

Through June 21st. The West Stage at Raven Theatre Complex. 6157 N Clark St. 773-828-9129

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