Category: Paige Listerud

Review: The First (and Last) Musical on Mars (New Rock)

     
     

Too messy, even for schlock

     
     

Gina Sparacino and Meghan Phillpp in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr.

  
New Rock Theater presents
   
   
The First (and Last) Musical on Mars
   
Written by George Zarr
Directed by Kevin Hanna
at New Rock Theater, 3933 N. Elston (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $10-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

I generally love schlock musical comedy. The emotions are elemental, the humor, raw, the plots, joyfully ridiculous. Yet, is it possible for schlock to be too schlock-y, even for schlock? Of course—and as Exhibit A, I present to you The First (and Last) Musical On Mars, onstage now at New Rock Theater. New Rock rocked Chicago twice with its utterly gnarly and awesome crowd-pleaser, Point Break Live! (our review Leah Isabel Tirado in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr.★★★). But it seems that they’ve taken this fledgling comedy review too early from its nest.

Written and composed by former Sirius Satellite Radio spoken word maven George Zarr and directed by Kevin Hanna (musical direction Robert Ollis), The First (and Last) Musical On Mars still looks like it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be when in grows up. Angel Tuidor’s costuming and Ellen Ranney’s set design suggest heavy influences from 1970’s David Bowie and Roxy Music. Indeed, the use of glitter is almost blinding. But Zarr’s musical compositions are a hodge-podge of pop and Broadway. In fact, hodge-podge is a nice way of putting it. The tune “Sweet Alien Boy” is overlaid on the chord structure of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady,” but its execution just doesn’t rock. The first act finale, “Sibling Rivalry”, can’t be described as anything other than a messy attempt at pop-operetta.

As space opera, The First (and Last) Musical On Mars is just too jumbled and patched together to excite. Add awkward scene transitions and the show barely holds together. But it does have a few fun and tender moments. Rock star James (Sam Button-Harrison) is forcibly teleported to Mars for the coronation of twin princesses Hendrixia (Gina Sparacino) and Hollilia (Meghan Phillipp) and, ta-da, romantic entanglements ensue. It’s certainly fab to watch the girls zoom about in their ship to the song “Retro-Rocket Warp Speed.” Once James lands, a few tender, romantic moments stand out with the coy duet between him and Holliliah with “Different Beings, Different Worlds” and Button-Harrison’s warm reprise of “You Take Me to Paradise.” It must be noted that the entire cast’s voice quality is quite above standard for musical comedy review. Now, if they only had the material to match their talents.

     
Sam Button-Harrison in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr. Meghan Phillipp and Sam Button-Harrison in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr.

So far as comedy goes, Matthew Isler’s dry robot servant, Electrolux, stands out–and that’s mostly because he has great miniature signage that he flourishes most effectively. All the same, with the exception of brief one-liners like “Earth guys are easy!” the entire book badly needs a rewrite. Dallia Funkaster (Casey Kells) and Zabathoo (Leah Tirado) make decent evil villains, attempting to kill the princesses and take over Mars, but that has entirely to do with their level of enthusiasm and not the writing. Meanwhile, the Chorus (Rachel Bonaquisti, Liz Hanford, and Allison Toth) always comes across sweet and lovely, while Jonas Davidow has to be thanked just for wearing a g-string.

But it’s back to the drawing board for the creator. Or his venture into the heart of shlock will be, dare I say, lost in space.

  
  
Rating: ★½
   
  

Gina Sparacino, Meghan Phillpp, Sam Button-Harrison and Chorus Rachel Bonaquisti, Liz Hanford, and Allison Toth in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr.

The First (and Last) Musical on Mars continues through June 19th at New Rock Theater, 3933 N. Elston (map), with performances Fridays and Satrudays at 10pm and Sundays at 8pm.  Tickets are $15, and can be purchased by phone (773-639-5316) or online at http://www.newrocktheater.com/tickets.htm.

  
 
May 24, 2011 | 8 Comments More

Review: A Lesson Before Dying (Lincoln Square Theatre)

  
  

Stark simplicity amplifies Lincoln Squares’ Lesson

  
  

David Lawrence Hamilton and Barth Bennett (Jefferson) in Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney

  
Lincoln Square Theatre presents
   
   
A Lesson Before Dying
   
Written by Romulus Linney
Directed by Kristina Schramm
at Lincoln Square Theatre, 4754 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 11  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

To call Lincoln Square Theatre’s A Lesson Before Dying rudimentary would be the understatement of the year. The production values of the set design by director Kristina Schramm may be low, its look stark and rough around the edges. That, however, works in the production’s favor at critical moments—evoking dark poetry about a young black man sentenced to die in the electric chair for a crime he did not commit. The meat and potatoes of Lincoln Square’s offering lies in the excellent characterizations of its little known cast, some of whom make their Chicago debut David Lawrence and Elana Elyce in Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying"with this production. Hence, their cumulative efforts can be considered a small diamond gleaming in an unexpected spot. Go to witness the resilient, earthy, intelligent and vital performances that fill the church basement space Lincoln Square Theatre calls home.

Set in the pre-Civil Rights Era South, Miss Emma (vividly played by Mary Helena) wants the local schoolteacher Grant Wiggins (David Lawrence Hamilton) to intervene with her grandson Jefferson (Barth Bennett), who has just been sentenced to death for the murder of a white grocery store owner. At one point in his trial, Jefferson’s lawyer had argued that one might as well execute a hog as execute his client—from that point Jefferson only thinks of himself as a hog. Miss Emma hopes that the schoolteacher can speak to Jefferson and raise him up to believe in himself again as a man, so that he can die with dignity.

But Wiggins himself is a man burnt out on the futility of teaching in the rural South. The shack that stands for the schoolhouse he teaches in doesn’t have enough chalk to last through the year. His students spend more time playing with bugs than reading the old, used and worn out textbooks donated to them from white schools. His perspective on the impact he can make under such conditions has degenerated to impotent and sour cynicism. “Vivian, I’m dead here,” he tells his girlfriend, also a schoolteacher. But Vivian Baptiste (in a fresh and driven performance by Elana Elyce) pushes Wiggins to help Jefferson. Due to going through a divorce herself, Vivian cannot be sure of Wiggins, if he turns out to be someone people can’t depend upon—“Decent men back out. Decent men give up. Decent men change the rules.”

     
A scene from Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney A scene from Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney

The power of Wiggin’s story lies in the pressures upon him to be more than what he is – which he may be swayed by, but never really yields to. Romulus Linney’s adaptation of the novel by Earnest J. Gaines preserves Wiggins as a man filled with doubts, able to use only the most meager pedagogical tools at his disposal to draw Jefferson out. Vivian seems, at times, to want him to be a superman. The Rev. Ambrose (resonantly played by Rudolf D. Munro, III) definitely dislikes Wiggins’ secular leanings dominating Jefferson’s recovery and wishes there would be more God-talk involved in his redemption. But it’s the halting and uncertain nature of the schoolteacher’s mentality that allows him to be influenced by the person who matters most—the condemned man himself.

At the beginning, both Hamilton and Bennett’s play their characters too tight and shut down to allow for much emotional play. But both actors blossom into their roles organically—evincing profound, confrontational and revelatory moments the closer Jefferson comes to his day of execution. Flanked by the manipulative Sheriff Guidry (Ed Schultz) and the sympathetic Deputy Paul Bonin (Jereme Rhodes), Jefferson’s ability to recover himself and face his undeserved death becomes more about the transformation of a community than just his personal ordeal. Lincoln Square Theatre renders a poignant and profound drama on the value of human life that is more than worth the effort to seek it out.

     
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The cast of Lincoln Square Theatre's "A Lesson Before Dying", by Romulus Linney

Dates/Times: Continues thru June 11, with performances Fridays at 8pm and Saturdays at 3pm and 8pm.

Tickets: $20 ($12 students & seniors)
Purchase:
credit card via Brown Paper Tickets; cash and check at door;
Reservations:
773-275-7930; Location: 4754 N. Leavitt St. Chicago (map)

  
  
May 24, 2011 | 0 Comments More

Review: Dot & Ziggy (Chicago Children’s Theatre)

     
     

A little cuteness, a little charm, a lot of predictability

  
  

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Chicago Children’s Theatre presents
   
   
Dot & Ziggy
   
Created by Linda Hartzell, Mark Perry
and the Seattle Children’s Theatre
Directed by Linda Hartzell
at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 26th  |  tickets: $16-$18  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Dot & Ziggy is Chicago Children’s Theatre’s first crack at targeting the baby and toddler audience—and, of course, those parents seeking a fun, interactive theatrical event to share with their youngest. Theater for the very young, age 6 months to 4 years, has been established in Europe and Australia for over two decades now and is just finding its audience in America, with Seattle and Minneapolis leading the way in baby and toddler theatre. Success for Dot & Ziggy could open the way to a whole new Chicago audience.

Created and directed by Linda Hartzell, Chicago Children’s Theatre also promotes Dot & Ziggy as childhood entertainment that doubles as “time well spent.” Clearly, the production was developed along early child development guidelines. The tried and true formulas first instigated by “Sesame Street” in the 1960s are all over this show. The production’s one variation from television lies in the moments it provides for interactive movement and sound. But the oft-repeated recognition of shapes, the recognition of opposites in language, as well as lessons on socialization – via the budding friendship between a ladybug, Dot (Roni Geva) and a skunk named Ziggy (Don Darryl Rivera) – are plainly safe, comfortable and predictable territory.

CCT-Dot-Ziggy-4_lo-resFar be it from me, not being a parent, to throw cold water on a theatrical experience that might be exactly what some parents want for their children—something that fits easily into parameters they’ve already been exposed to at home. Obviously, the young audience’s response to Dot and Ziggy’s friendship forms a far better indicator. Geva is charming in the dedicated earnestness with which she tries to make Ziggy see things her way. Rivera employs a hint of cheerful mischief in Ziggy’s opposition to Dot. It’s also a plus that Dot and Ziggy lead the audience with music from the lobby of the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater to the upstairs theatre space. Once inside, Nicolas Davio’s fresh and simple musical accompaniment forms a strong underpinning to the storytelling. By far, watching the kids react to the material may be the show’s biggest entertainment value—an element that reinforces the communal nature of live theater, both for adults and the very young.

I do question, however, an over-reliance on the Sesame-Street-model or an over-dependency on sociological approaches when it comes to creating theater, all with the intent that it be “good for children.” What can be lost is wonder; what results is a production that looks like it was created more by a well-meaning committee than by theater artists. Also, at some point, the question of whether parents really need to spend $16 a ticket to sing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” with their children comes into view. Dot & Ziggy does have a very endearing original song near its end and one can only hope that further works for very young people, centered on greater originality and creativity, will be forthcoming.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  

baby watching Dot and Ziggy

 

Chicago Children’s Theatre’s Dot & Ziggy continues through June 26th, with performances Tuesdays-Thursdays at 10am, Fridays-Sundays at 10am and 12pm. Tickets are $16 on weekdays and $18 on weekends, and can be purchased by phone (773-871-3000) or online.

 

  
  
May 22, 2011 | 0 Comments More

Review: Iphigeneia at Aulis (Lights Out Theatre)

  
  

Ritualistic elements explore value and purpose of faith

  
  

Rehearsal photo from Lights Out Theatre's "Iphigeneia at Aulis" by Euripides, now playing at the Collaboraction space in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building.  (Photo: Serena Valenti)

  
Lights Out Theatre presents
   
   
Iphigeneia at Aulis
   
Written by Euripides
Directed and Adapted by Josh Altman
at Collaboraction, Flat Iron Building, 1579 N. Milwaukee (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

More than just a little hippie feeling prevails in Lights Out Theatre’s production of Euripides’ Iphigeneia at Aulis. That vibe comes, partly, from Collaboraction’s theater-in-the-round space, which seats its audience on pillows at various levels to the stage floor. The other contribution comes from Josh Altman’s cast of barefoot players, complete with hearty drum elements, which make their Greek army stranded on the shores of Aulis look more like a summer of love gone wrong. Love gone wrong isn’t a bad choice of words, since Helen, wife of Menelaos (Michael Hamilton), has run off to Troy with Paris. Now the cuckolded husband and his brother, Agamemnon (Kipp A scene from Lights Out Theatre's "Iphigeneia at Aulis" by Euripides, now playing at the Collaboraction space in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building.  (Photo: Serena Valenti)Moorman), must amass their armies to get her back. But even fatherly affection doesn’t stand a chance once the army’s prophets proclaim that Artemis demands the sacrifice of Iphigeneia (Anne Leone), Agamemnon’s daughter, to get the whole enterprise off to sea.

Earthy and casual may be the look but nothing’s sloppy about the cast’s indelible care with Euripides’ language (adaptation also by Altman). Moorman, particularly, wrings every ounce of sympathy, depth and miserable humanity from his guilty and tormented father figure while never casting doubt on his position as commander-in-chief of Greece’s forces. Partnered with a rich and resonant performance by Barbara Figgins as Clytemnestra, Moorman holds the dramatic space through which Euripides savages dubious religion, the insanity of war and the dangerous power of demagoguery—political concerns of an Athens demoralized by the Peloponnesian War 2500 years ago, still finding their resilient parallel today.

While most of Altman’s younger cast members securely back up the principal leads, Iphigeneia’s shrill desperate pleas to Agamemnon’s for mercy doesn’t allow much play or range. Of course, the girl’s about to die, yet Leone needs to find the nuance of Iphigeneia’s mental state to make her anguish more watchable and compelling.

     
Rehearsal photo from Lights Out Theatre's "Iphigeneia at Aulis" by Euripides, now playing at the Collaboraction space in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building.  (Photo: Serena Valenti) Rehearsal photo from Lights Out Theatre's "Iphigeneia at Aulis" by Euripides, now playing at the Collaboraction space in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building.  (Photo: Serena Valenti)
Rehearsal photo from Lights Out Theatre's "Iphigeneia at Aulis" by Euripides, now playing at the Collaboraction space in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building.  (Photo: Serena Valenti) Rehearsal photo from Lights Out Theatre's "Iphigeneia at Aulis" by Euripides, now playing at the Collaboraction space in Wicker Park's Flat Iron Building.  (Photo: Serena Valenti)

Neither does Iphigeneia’s sudden 180-degree turn toward being the willing victim convince–and for this play, it very badly needs to. Euripides makes a habit of putting his characters through 180-degree turns. He assigns several to other characters in this play alone. It almost seems like a perverse test for the actor, to instantaneously supply their character with psychological veracity in absolute contradiction to what they felt a moment ago. But having begun without much depth toward losing her life, becoming the Greek’s willing sacrificial lamb also proceeds without the intense psychological subtext that makes Iphigeneia’s transformation credible.

At least the ritualistic elements of Altman’s direction, bracingly and cunning bolstered by Hamilton’s drumming and Ben Chang’s violin, close Iphigeneia in Aulis with fundamental questions about the value and purpose of faith. By accepting an absurdity—that her death will bring freedom to Greece and immortality to her–Iphigeneia is able to transcend her misery and embrace her end with serene, courageous, almost godly composure. But should such things be believed? Figgins carries the evening with her exit clouded in doubt and suspense.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Members of the "Iphigeneia at Aulis" cast, including: Ben Chang, Anthony DeMarco, Barbara Figgins, Michael Hamilton, Adam Hinkle, Anne Leone, Anna Lucero, Kipp Moorman, and Andrew Nowak.  (Photo: Serena Valenti)

All photos by Serena Valenti

     
May 19, 2011 | 0 Comments More

Review: No More Dead Dogs (Griffin Theatre)

 

Griffin Theatre focuses on ‘Dead Dog’ fun


Alex Kyger, Colton Dillion, Cameron Harms, Jeff Duhigg and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

 

Griffin Theatre presents

 

No More Dead Dogs
Based on novel by Gordon Korman
Adapted by William Massolia
Directed by Dorothy Milne
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 19  | tickets: $25-$30  | more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Just what is it about children’s literature? On the one hand, classics in the genre can zap heartstrings and endear us to them forever. On the other hand, they, too, fall back on tired formulas that make us wonder what we ever saw in them. Heaven help the public school teacher trying to turn kids onto literature using “age appropriate” work from the 1950s. Wallace Wallace (Ryan Lempka) is just the kind of kid who won’t accept that kind of fodder without blunt and unforgiving commentary. Griffin Theatre’s latest production at Theatre Wit, No More Dead Dogs, follows Wallace’s keen observation that many books for young people, such as “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows”, often have dogs die in them in order to foster some tear-jerking Ellie Reed and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"realization about life for the young reader. (Don’t get us started about Bambi.)

But dead dogs and orphaned deer aside, Griffin’s show, under the easy, swift and agile direction of Dorothy Milne, is a joyous romp for both cast and audience. Co-Artistic Director William Massolia has adapted Gordon Korman’s best-selling comic novel for the stage and his light handling of the ‘tween material usually carries off without a hitch. Wallace, having been lied to so often by his Dad (Jeff Duhigg), simply cannot bring himself to lie about anything, ever—including how much he thinks the book he’s assigned to report, “Old Shep, My Pal”, stinks. Too bad his English teacher, Mr. Fogelman (Jeremy Fisher ), can’t accept that his favorite children’s classic may be past its prime. He perpetually puts Wallace in detention until he can write a book report that meets with his approval. What could have been Wallace’s irresistible force running into Fogelman’s immovable object instead morphs into school jock meets the drama club, since Fogelman has adapted “Old Shep, My Pal” for their next production.

By no means is No More Dead Dogs a John Hughes drama. Crafted for younger audiences, the comedy kindly skirts the rancor between high school cliques. Indeed, sub-cultural clashes become virtually negligible once Wallace starts updating Fogelman’s adaptation to something his classmates can relate to. This includes incorporating Vito’s (Joey deBettencourt) garage band, The Dead Mangoes, into the production, much to Fogelman’s chagrin. Lempka strongly shows he knows the importance of being earnest in his humorously straightforward interpretation of Wallace. Fisher, however, almost steals the show, as Fogelman journeys from escalating frustration over his play being usurped, to hip cat on a sax once the band tells him he can join.

 Cameron Harms, Jeff Duhigg and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs" Ellie Reed and Joey Eovaldi in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

Ellie Reed and Cameron Harms in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs". (background: The Mangos)

Indeed, much as the play spoofs stale children’s lit, the show looks strangely reminiscent of zany, overtly physical 50s comedy, where every character pretty much stays in type and the show winds up even more crazy from there. Milne’s direction never overplays its hand but always builds the action to its appropriately goofy outcomes. Wallace is solidly flanked by his football buddies and the nerdier drama club, with Joey Eovaldi adding coy and energetic mischief in his role as the younger Dylan. Would that the parts of Rachel (Elllie Reed) and Trudi (Samantha Dubina) could have gone beyond girls-with-crushes-on-the-lead cliches—but at least Reed and Dubin handle their characters sportingly and generously. In fact, one would be hard put to find a more good-natured production, focused solely on dealing out firm and lively fun for the young, than this.

 

Rating: ★★★


Joey deBettencourt, Erin O'Shea, Morgan Maher and Jeremy Fisher as The Mangos in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

Griffin Theatre’s No More Dead Dogs continues at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through June 19th, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25-$30, and can be purchased by phone (773-975-8150) or online.  More info at www.griffintheatre.com.

 

May 15, 2011 | 0 Comments More

Review: Helen (Vintage Theater Collective)

     
     

Vividly adept ensemble reveals the emptiness of beauty

     
     

Bergen Anderson (Servant) and Katy Carolina Collins (Helen) in a scene from Vintage Theater Collective's "Hellen" by Ellen McLaughlin.

  
Vintage Theater Collective presents
  
Helen
   
Written by Ellen McLaughlin
Directed by Kelley Ristow
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through May 25  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

All I know about the Gods is the anguish of my own body.      –Io

Nothing should come between success and the intense wisdom of playwright Ellen McLaughlin’s Helen, produced by the Vintage Theater Collective at Strawdog Theatre’s space. Taking off from Euripides’ play by the same name, Helen investigates the troubling and enigmatic power that beauty maintains over women and men, not to mention its interplay with war, fame, fate, and loss. The legendary Greek beauty whose face launched a thousand ships finds herself stuck in a three-star hotel in Egypt, transported there by the gods to wait out the end of the Trojan War–at least until her husband Menelaus arrives to take her home. Meanwhile, to fool everyone and keep the war going at Troy, the gods have replaced her with an eidolon, an ancient Greek word that means both “phantom” and “image.”

Vintage Theater Collective - Helen poster“I do worry about the world. The splitting of image from being doesn’t bode well,” says Helen (Katy Caroline Collins) to the Servant (Bergen Anderson) of the hotel who perpetually offers her manicures and facials to pass the time. To be in a desired body or not to be in one—that is the question. Director Kelly Ristow assembles an excellent and intuitively adept ensemble cast to take on McLaughlin’s heady and thoroughly philosophical script. This they achieve with a lightness and ease that, nevertheless, nails some pretty dark and powerful revelations.

Collins holds the center with her bored, frustrated, yet quintessentially entitled heroine, solidly elucidating the tendency for perfect beauty to be emptied of everything pertaining to the self, flattened to a reflective surface for the projections of others. Her Waiting for Godot-style role is vitally flanked by the vivid performances of Miriam Mintz as Io and Emily Shain as Athena. Charmingly self-effacing, Io arrives in Helen’s room after being agelessly driven across the Mediterranean by Hera’s gadfly, still recovering her woman’s body after its transformation into a cow. “It made a kind of awful sense,” she says of Zeus’ attempt to hide her from Hera through the transformation, “because it arrived at a time when my body wasn’t my own anymore.” Of being at the mercy of the gods she can only surmise, “I guess I have to think of my suffering as sacred—it’s the only thing they ever gave me.”

Alternately, Athena shows up in chic black, callously glib about the Trojan War, which, as she announces to Helen, has already been over for 7 years. Humanity is a curiosity for the gods because we, unlike them, experience death. But their aspirations for the war to be a compelling spectacle were soon worn out by its boring 10-year siege of Troy. “We lost respect for you guys. You looked like a bunch of beetles scrambling around on a dung heap. When all is said and done, death is pretty boring.” To her credit, Shain blithely tosses off these lines with all the effortlessness as a socialite at a cocktail party.

If there is one snag in the fabric of McLaughlin’s script, it seems to be its over-reliance on the Servant’s storytelling to provide context for Helen’s next set of choices or emotional journey. Also, Jeff Trainor makes a terribly sympathetic war-torn Menelaus, yet his arrival in Helen’s room seems almost anti-climatic. McLaughlin has brought up and fleshed the conundrums involved over women being adored for their physical appearance–yet still having very little control or agency in their lives. She doesn’t seem to know how to wrap up what she’s plunged into. A certain form of immortality is held out to Helen but that hardly seems to compensate for the life the gods have taken from her. Perhaps we will have to wait for the next great beauty of Western culture to have independence, resourcefulness and self-possession. That would certainly be a refreshing change from her literary predecessors.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Jeff Trainor (Menelaus) and Katy Carolina Collins (Helen) in a scene from Vintage Theater Collective's "Hellen" by Ellen McLaughlin.

Vintage Theater Collective’s Helen continues through May 25th, with perfomances Mondays-Wednesdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 1pm. Performances are located at the Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway).  Tickets cost $20, and are available by phone (214-725-5217) or online at vintagetheatercollective.com.
  
  
May 11, 2011 | 0 Comments More

Review: Electra and Orestes (20% Theatre Company)

     
     

A bloody goth industrial mess

     
     

Laura Deger, Sophie Gatins, Lindsay Le Tigre Bartlett in "Electra and Orestes", adapted by Melissa Albertario. Photo credit: Laura Olesda

      
20% Theatre Company presents
  
Electra and Orestes
   
Written by Sophocles
Adapted and Directed by Melissa Albertario
at Evanston Arts Depot, 600 Main, Evanston (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Revisions of Classical Greek drama perpetually crop up in Chicago’s theater scene—a testament to their power to reach into the core of the human psyche and provoke renewal of perspective. Emotionally impacted by the Columbine Massacres, playwright and director Melissa Albertario sees a dramatic framework in the story of Electra, addressing how youth react to violence, upheaval and emotional anguish. Unfortunately, her newly minted adaptation, Electra and Orestes, produced by Twenty Percent Theatre Company at the Evanston Arts Depot, is so premature for the stage and so rankly amateurish, it runs the danger of provoking more laughter than empathy for the plight of its title characters.

Mindy Yourokos and Jackelyn Normand in 20% Theatre's "Electra and Orestes". Photo credit: Laura OleskaFirst, there’s the dialogue, which comes across more like leaden imitation than updated reinterpretation or even homage. Incorporating fragmented lyrics from Nirvana’s “Nevermind” and Radiohead’s “Creep” into the play’s choral sections more often than not tinges the production with unintentional silliness.

Add further the conceit that Electra (Mindy Yourokos) is a goth girl warring against her sinister mother Clytemnestra (Clarissa Yearman) and her boy-toy king Aegisthus (Don Markus), not to mention constantly assailing her conformist, goody-two-shoes sister, Chrysothemis (Jackie Normand), for accommodating them and you have a feeble attempt at trying to plaster modern domestic relationships onto an ancient epic is, well, more truly epic than the modern relationships. From the get-go, Electra and Orestes has no sense of proportion; it only follows that its characters will go on and on with their conflicts and protestations, with no sign of any editorial sense of where and when to cut.

Finally, Ashley Ann Woods’ set design looks like the goth/industrial aesthetic threw up all over stage in a desperate attempt to be gritty and hardcore. Top it off with clumsy and often needless projections and what you have is a theatrical mess.

     
A scene from Twenty-Percent Theatre's "Electra and Orestes" at the Evanston Arts Depot. Photo credit: Laura Oleska Mindy Youroukos and Claire Yearman in 20% Theatre's "Electra and Orestes".  Photo credit: Linda Oleska
Sophie Gatins in 20% Theatre's "Electra and Orestes". Photo credit: Linda Oleska Zack Meyer and Mindy Yourokos in 20% Theatre's "Electra and Orestes" Laura Deger in 20% Theatre's "Electra and Orestes".  Photo credit: Linda Oleska

What, then, can be salvaged from an impossibly immature production like this? Well, both Zack Meyer and Benjamin Johnson decently acquit their roles as Orestes and Pylades, respectively–even as their opening scene has them loadin’ up with guns and ammo to assail the House of Atreus. Clarissa Yearman packs some punch as good, old, wicked Clytemnestra, although she looks like Ivana Trump after the Eighties have thrown up all over her (costuming Betsey Palmer).

As for the heroine, Electra, I really wish I could say I cared about her emotional distress and compulsive tendency to engage in self-cutting—but the sluggish dialogue, the drawn out and pointless arguments with Chrysothemis and the Chorus’s ridiculous headdresses make it impossible. Nice goth gown, though. Mind if I borrow it for my next night out at Neo?

  
  
Rating:
  
  

Lindsay Le Tigre Bartlett, Laura Deger, Sophie Gatins in 20% Theatre's "Electra and Orestes". Photo credit: Linda Oleska

All photo by Laura Oleska

        
        
May 7, 2011 | 2 Comments More

Review: Steel Magnolias (Saint Sebastian Players)

     
     

Warmth, camaraderie dominate Steel Magnolias

     
     

SteelMagnolias1byJohnOster

   
Saint Sebastian Players presents
  
Steel Magnolias
   
Written by Robert Harling
Directed by Steven Walanka
at
St. Bonaventure Church, 1625 W. Diversey (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Something happens once one enters Saint Sebastian Players’ theater space at St. Bonaventure Church. First, there’s the sign over the stairs on the way down—“The best theatre in a basement in the universe.” Then, there’s the palpable hominess, the obvious, open responsiveness transmitted between audience and cast. Clearly, SSP is a theater company that has fostered a strong, grounded sense of community over its 30-year run. That they would choose to produce Robert Harling’s Steel Magnolias fits their M.O. to a tee. Friendship and community that sees people through the rhythms of the years probably resonates more here in this space than any other in town and Chicago is simply full to the brim with small theaters that offer an intimate experience. But something about the gentle care Steven Walanka’s direction takes with each scene between the women of Truvy’s (Tricia Rogers) hair salon suggests the intimacy of family–or people who know and accept you better than family.

Steel Magnolias - Saint Sebastian Players 034Those ladies who show up to Truvy’s are legendary: Annelle (Kaitlyn Whitebread), nervous, naïve and on the run from her criminal husband; Clairee (Deborah Rodkin), widowed and searching for a life beyond being the mayor’s wife; Shelby (Margaret Scrantom), always pushing herself past the limitations of diabetes; M’Lynn (Jill Chukerman Test), her stoutly pragmatic mother; and Ouiser (Kate O’Connor), cantankerous, idiosyncratic and unstoppable. Saint Sebastian’s cast runs the risk of having every minute of their performance gauged against the 1989 movie. Yet, they succeed in creating a genuine world of their own.

Walanka’s direction starts each scene at a comfortable, neighborly pace, which allows his actors to dip into quiet, confidential moments with each other, before building to surprise or confrontation. For the most part, the cast follows the comedy’s natural rhythms organically. The testy, if loving, relationship between Shelby and her mother, M’lynn, stretches out over years of bright hope for Shelby’s future with her new husband to dire health consequences stemming from choosing to bear a child against the advice of doctors. In the meantime, Chairee and Ouiser gamely get on each other’s nerves and Annelle goes from scared runaway to party girl to born again Christian. It’s capable, sassy Truvy that provides the safe, gossipy space that is their home away from home.

     
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That’s not to say that SSP’s production is perfect. Opening night found a couple of actors starting cold and only warming to their parts by the second scene. Also, while a low-key approach to building relationships between these characters definitely has its pay-offs, there’s equally the danger of some scenes’ moments dragging. But, all in all, this cast projects the essence of camaraderie between women. Furthermore, Scrantom brings the right blend of independence and vulnerability distinctive to Shelby, while Chukerman Test brings her role as M’lynn home with simple and convincing interpretation of her frustration and rage over Shelby’s death, as well as her endurance. Overall, the production communicates the vitality of these characters and they communicate it to an audience that fully, wisely, appreciates its substance, as well as the laughter.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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Photos by OCA Photography

        
       
May 7, 2011 | 0 Comments More