Category: 2011 Reviews
Now extended through October 7th!!
Hilarity, history and the ‘Big O’
|The Annoyance Theatre presents|
|Oprah! A Comedy! Live Your Best Laugh|
|Co-created and directed by Anne Marie Saviano
Co-created and written by Marc Warzecha
at The Annoyance Theatre and Bar, 4830 N. Broadway (map)
Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins
Ah Chicago. It’s a hardscrabble kind of place and once the people take you into their hearts it seems that there is instant canonization. For better or worse we Chicagoans have our saints. In Oprah! A Comedy! Live Your Best Laugh, conceived by two Second City alums, The Annoyance Theatre hits the mark with hilarious perfection.
Michelle Renee Thompson does a spot on Oprah as Lady Bountiful and full of herself. Ms. Thompson’s Oprah is led on an ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ type of replay of her years in Chicago. This is a purely Chicago production with parodies of present day politicos and a couple of ghosts from the past played to perfection.
The supporting cast of “Oprah” brings to life all of the lore that has been dispensed about Ms. Winfrey. No one is allowed to look Ms. Winfrey in the eye and if you reach the exalted position of calling her Ms. Oprah Winfrey rather than her surname-well it’s a Benny Hinn-style miracle. The evangelist dig was slipped in so smoothly that perhaps only insomniacs and media nerds such as myself caught it.
Oprah gives a ‘miracle’ of her advice and inspiration to Janet who she calls Janice, lays hands on her forehead, and Janet swoons falling backwards. Liz Bell is hilarious as the newly-inspired Janet and as other characters Suze Orman, Ellen Degeneres , and Mother Theresa.
Nate Sherman plays Oprah’s eternal sideman Steadman. Thompson’s Oprah doesn’t know his last name or what he does for a living. Mr. Sherman also brings life to Mahatma Gandhi and Jesse Jackson Sr. The spoof of Jesus, Gandhi, and Mother Theresa on Oprah’s favorite things show brings down the house. Gandhi gets a Volkswagen Beetle and exclaims that he deserves it because “I got shot and it was bullshit!” while Jesus and Mother Theresa cling to one another in shock and awe. Mr. Sherman’s Jesse also offers father another illegitimate baby with Oprah if she will stay in Chicago.
Justin Vestal plays Richard M. Daley as the political scion always trying to live up to his father’s legacy. Vestal is a mirror or Daley-isms at a press conference even throwing in the legendary ‘cuckoo!’ He begs Oprah to stay and shore up his legacy since he lost the Olympics. Then the ghost of Richard J. Daley enters and he is given the Royko-inspired name “Boss”. He slaps Richard M. around and then sets about showing Oprah that Ellen Degeneres would be the queen of talk while Oprah is relegated to local commercials.
If you have lived in Chicago for at least five years, you will recognize the Eagle Man laying the insurance rate egg, Peter Francis Geraci’s painful deadpan delivery, and the Empire Carpet commercials. (It should be noted that Elmer Lynn Hauldren just passed away and was known as the Empire Man for over thirty years.) A woman behind me cringed and said “too soon”. I say just right. Hauldren was well aware of his cult status and had been spoofed on the Chicago stage before by playwrights and comedians. The show was running before he died and his appearance with a halo was more of a tribute in my eyes. Besides, Hauldren had appeared in the carpet commercials as a cartoon for the past few years with only his voice. R.I.P. 588-2300 Empi-i-i-re Today! Wolfgang Stein played him with a wonderful doddering effect.
Oprah! opens up a few sensitive tabloid subjects with comic flourish. Brittany Davis plays best friend Gayle King with schoolgirl lesbian crush undertones. Oprah and Gayle pantomime patty-cake (ala “The Color Purple”) whenever they part. Stein reappears as couch jumping freak Tom Cruise who frantically humps Oprah’s leg. And there’s is a freaky scene with her and Dr. Phil that would spin the National Enquirer on its’ head.
In all, this is inspired satire and it is brilliantly funny. I have not laughed so hard in a while and hope that Oprah! A Comedy! Live Your Best Laugh could play continuously for a while like other Chicago classics. Over 70 Chicago icons make the cut in this fast paced and intelligently funny show. Yes, some of the jokes are base and low, but to quote Richard “Boss” Daley, “This is Chicago and if you don’t like it, kiss under the mistletoe on my suit tail”.
Oprah A Comedy! Live Your Best Laugh runs through
May15th October 7th at The Annoyance Theater. Go to www.annoyanceproductions.com for more information on tickets and show times. Lighten up and laugh!
Sex and Shakespeare for the scholastically inclined
|American Demigods present|
|Written by Reina Hardy
Directed by Dan Foss
at The Second Stage, 3408 N. Sheffield (map)
through May 14 | tickets: $15 | more info
Reviewed by Paige Listerud
The American Demigods are working with one sharp and sassy script for their latest production at Second Stage Theatre. Dan Foss directs a taut, dynamically funny cast for Erratica, by Reina Hardy. An academic farce, Erratica brings brains and loins together with a typical dash of intellectual neurosis. Hardy, being the founder and Artistic Director of The Viola Project, which introduces young girls to Shakespeare, is eminently familiar with the academic field she spoofs. Her professorial protagonist, Dr. Samantha Stafford (Lisa Herceg), idolizes her subject, the Bard, to the rejection of all others. Yet she finds herself up to her eyeballs in moonstruck, mediocre student-poets, glib, scheming and mercenary publicists, and competitive colleagues who would also like to get into her pants. Even the ghost of Christopher Marlowe (David Wilhelm) desires her amorous, as well as academic, attention. But all the good doctor wants is love distilled to a purity of lived experience that matches Shakespeare’s sublime and ineffable lines.
Of course, no one can live up to that—but that doesn’t stop the puerile attempts of one of her students, Gregory, to woo her with his verse. We never get to see Gregory. But we do get a full on rant against Dr. Stafford from Elspeth (Victoria Bucknell), his defender, for rebuffing Gregory’s advances by savaging his poems. Though stuck on Gregory herself, Elspeth reviles the professor for reducing Gregory to cringing under the table at Commons “eating nothing but Triscuits and powdered Tang.” If Elspeth cannot have Gregory, she at least wants him to be happy in his own heart’s desire—something that absolutely dumbfounds the professor.
Against her wishes to be left alone, Stafford is pulled into an undertow of messy, hormonally-driven desire. Likewise, her desire for academic purity, such as the publication of her highly intellectual treatise on Shakespeare, meets with the mercenary side of publishing–represented by her leggy, fast-talking and devious publicist Lisa Milkmin (Kelly Yacono). Herceg charmingly delivers Stafford’s smart and sardonic exasperation down pat and, while Bucknell makes a classic comic foil with her character’s adolescent insecurity and Wilhelm bounces off her rebuffs of Marlowe with intelligent, roguish charm, nothing crackles as much as the showdown between professor and publicist. It’s style meets substance—and superficial style is definitely winning.
Lisa wants Stafford to shape her book into a “Shakespeare for the Cosmo girl.” But failing that, she pressures Stafford into translating the newly discovered “Quinberry Diaries,” a recent academic find of an Elizabethan trollop’s journals that has garnered intense notoriety and landed a career coup for the university’s head librarian, Dr. Hooper. “You’re pleading like an undergraduate,” Hooper smarmily quips once Stafford comes asking for the dairies, “that’s exciting.” If Hardy’s play has any flaws, it’s in the way her cerebral protagonist has to skirt sexual harassment moments like these to keep the whole play light and fluid. Foss’s direction simply drives the play forward and the mysterious theft of the Quinberry Diaries distracts from Hooper delivering even further unwanted sexual advances.
Likewise, for such a smart comedy, the play wraps up a little formulaically, with a character leaping from behind an arras to resolve the final entanglement or Stafford showing sudden sexual interest in Hooper where there was none before. All that can be said is that Hardy’s shrewd dialogue and Foss’s clean-cut direction takes the audience through the journey with zippy alacrity. So, savor the juicy conspiratorial scene between Elspeth and Lisa. Enjoy Stafford’s alcoholic binge breakdown, when she declares, “Vodka’s like black—it goes with everything.” Appreciate the quieter moments when Marlowe tries to get through to her. Life isn’t pure poetry. And that’s a good thing.
An impressive revival of Sondheim’s sex comedy classic
|Circle Theatre presents|
|A Little Night Music|
|Music/Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Bob Knuth
at Circle Theatre, Oak Park (map)
through June 5 | tickets: $22-$26 | more info
Reviewed by Oliver Sava
Stephen Sondheim’s musicals often contain an element of nostalgic regret, focusing on characters that look back on their muddled pasts in hopes of achieving, as A Little Night Music’s Desirée Armfeldt (Anita Hoffman) says, “A coherent future.” The aging artists of Follies, the fairy tales of Into The Woods, Sweeney Todd’s titular anti-hero – these are just a few of the composer’s characters that are faced with the consequences time brings, and A Little Night Music is one of the most chronology-focused musicals in Sondheim’s canon. Key words like “now,” “soon,” “later,” and “meanwhile” are repeated to emphasize the passage of time, unified by the inquisitive “remember” that sparks the characters’ trips down memory lane. The past, present, and future intersect in a delicate waltz, and Sondheim writes most of the show’s music in ¾ time, overlapping the melodic themes with his signature complexity and precision.
Bob Knuth’s staging is similar to Trevor Nunn’s recent Broadway revival, with a similarly clean, white-washed set design also from Knuth, and the production’s technical aspects have a similar level of polish. Elizabeth Powell Wislar’s costume design is particularly stunning, and these characters are dressed with the level of elegance and sophistication worthy of their status. Knuth assembles a cast that handles the difficult music especially well, layering the moving voice parts with a great sense of timing, and crisp articulation that is much appreciated during intense numbers like “Weekend in the Country” where multiple parts are being sung simultaneously. Desirée’s five actor companions serve as an observing chorus, and they begin the show with an overture that establishes the melodies that will be revisited throughout the show. In the temporal context of the show, the overture becomes more than just a collection of the show’s most memorable tunes, but rather plants seeds that will later be cultivated by the other actors in the ensemble.
This is a musical about relations – husbands and wives, parents and children, the young and the old – and despite the occasional instance of overacting, Knuth’s cast succeeds in building the character connections that are elevated by Sondheim’s rich music. Hoffman anchors the production with her captivating portrayal of Desirée, capturing the weariness that comes with the touring life and the desire to finally obtain a life of stability with her daughter Fredrika (Alicia Hurtado). When she reunites with her past lover Fredrik Egerman (Kirk Swenk), she sees an opportunity to finally have the life she dreams of, but Fredrik’s eighteen-year-old wife Anne (Stephanie Stockstill) stands in their way. Matters are further complicated by Desirée’s preexisting affair with an insanely jealous dragoon Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jeremy W. Rill), whose destitute wife Charlotte (Deanna Boyd) tells Anne about Desirée’s affairs with both their husbands.
As Desirée’s partners, Swenk and Rill both showcase strong vocals, and there’s a clear contrast in their affection for Ms. Armfeldt. Fredrick genuinely longs for her on an emotional, whereas Malcolm desires her on a solely sexual level, and Rill gives Malcolm an exaggerated arrogance that works for the character, especially with his powerful singing. As his wife Charlotte, Boyd gives the character an appropriately dreary disposition, but she becomes too much of a caricature when her character breaks out of her depression. Stockstill’s Anne is delightfully naïve at the start of the show, still a child despite having been married for eleven months. The adorable flirtation between Anne and her step-son Henrik (Patrick Tierney) shows how innocent she is in comparison to women like the Egermans’ amorous maid Petra (Khaki Pixley), depicting an Anne who is anxious to explore her sexuality but not with her own aging husband.
Stockstill has a beautiful singing voice, and her duet with Boyd, “Everyday A Little Death” is a heartbreaking revelation that underneath the sexual comedy these are people in pain. Henrik is the play’s bleakest character, and Tierney does admirable work balancing the character’s jaded opinion of the world with a desire to find the kind of the love that he so publicly renounces. Tierney, along with Rill, has some of the most difficult music in the show, and while there are times that he could use some more support to stay on key, he does strong work with difficult material.
Fredrika and her grandmother Madame Armfeldt (Patti Roeder) represent the two ends of the time spectrum, as Madame lives in the past, while Fredrika is constantly looking toward the future. Roeder’s solo “Liaisons” could be considered the play’s theme, a meditation on how the affairs of her past have been grow more beautiful with age while the longing to return to them grows more painful. At the end of the play, Madame Armfeldt regrets turning away one of her lovers for giving her a wooden ring, lamenting the lost opportunity for true love. Desirée has a similar epiphany in “Send in the Clowns,” impeccably performed by Hoffman, where she finally exposes her true feelings to Fredrik before time passes them by again. After spending the play trying to recapture the past as a way to fix the present, she takes the leap into a future with Fredrik. When his responsibilities to Anne prevent him from jumping with her, Desirée ends the song with a defeated yet optimistic, “Maybe next year.” Time passes and things change. Things grow with time and they die with time. But perhaps the greatest power of time is the hope that the future brings, healing the wounds of the past and making the present an easier place to live.
All images by Bob Knuth.
Art, Life, Reality, Blurred Lines, and Who’s Daddy?
|The Neo-Futurists present|
|Liza Minnelli’s Daughter|
|Written by Mary Fons
Directed by Sonja Moser
at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland (map)
through June 4 | tickets: $15 | more info
Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins
The liner notes for Performing Tonight: Liza Minnelli’s Daughter claim that this show is much more than an impression, dance numbers, and a revue. Playwright Mary Fons claims that this is a reckoning. I am not sure for whom the reckoning tolls. Ms. Fons is a startling likeness of Liza Minnelli circa "Cabaret". The show opens with her giving a history of her love for lace-up platform ballet slippers. From there Fons spins a dizzying tale of adoration that turns into an identity crisis whereupon she rejects all that has hurt her and reinvents herself as Mary Minnelli.
Mary Minnelli wants to make us believe a fable from the cult of celebrity. She claims to be a Garland as in Judy who came from crazy Mama Gumm. There is plenty of crazy to go around as the world of Mary Minnelli is revealed. Liza Minnelli’s Daughter has a wonderful Greek Chorus holding up the mirror of truth and pain throughout the performance. Donnell Williams and Joseph Schupbach are the Fosse dancers, the wardrobe masters, the devil’s advocates holding the glaring spotlight, and the friends who talk Mary Minnelli off of the ledge.
The choreography is really quite good. Ms. Fons has the lithe synchronized moves, jazz hands, and long legs like Minnelli. Donnell Williams fits the physicality of a Fosse dancer and does a smashup Judy Garland with only a little black dress as the drag. The comedy is written with a dark and sardonic edge. Mary Minnelli sings a tribute to Liza who sang a tribute to her mother Judy Garland. Donnell brings out a tiny child’s piano to accompany the recorded soundtrack. The song is a replay of Liza singing "Mammy" to Judy Garland. It should be revealed that Donnell is Black and gamely plays along until the song ends. He utters one line-"Mammy"-accompanied by a look that says ‘seriously girlfriend…Mammy?’ I found it hysterical and indicative of the wonderful chemistry of this cast.
Joseph Schupbach plays the other half of Team Mary Minnelli. He is quite a wonderful dancer and has a brilliant comic presence as Mary’s best gay boyfriend. It is brilliant casting to have Schupbach juxtaposed to Williams. Joseph has as slight paunch and wears suspenders but has all of the moves down. His character is not only a Greek Chorus member but an alter ego to Mary Minnelli. Joseph seems like the kid from Iowa who puts on a show in the barn with the neighborhood kids just like Judy and Mickey. He has some great comments that drip with just enough acid to etch painful memories in Mary Minnelli’s psyche.
There are actually many similarities between Mary Fons and Liza Minnelli other than the startling looks. Judy Garland and Liza Minnelli made legendary bad choices in husbands. The exes were overbearing, codependent , and quite often gay. Mother and daughter struggled with health problems and addictions in mammoth proportions. Liza Minnelli had several miscarriages and is asked by Geraldo Rivera (he of the cult of celebrity news) if she wants children even after all that happens. There it is projected onto a bulb lined screen larger than life and was it just me or did everyone still flinch at Rivera’s insensitive questioning in the name of ‘journalism’? It is both good and not so good that Fons turns the microscope on her personal health crises. It is horrible to hear of her parallel suffering with her ‘mother’ Liza in that she cannot have children. She tells of extended stays at the famed Mayo Clinic where she spies upon the celebrity ward of the hospital. It is uncomfortable to hear Fons speak of the Egyptian cotton sheets and custom meals in the celebrity ward. I flinched at the comment that ‘surely Liza Minnelli would be in the celebrity ward’ at Mayo. Suffering becomes a touchstone that goes on for way too long and drags the last part of Act I.
It was enough to know that Ms. Fons shares an inability to have children and other medical crises with Liza Minnelli. It’s when she begins to draw the tabloid parallels wherein every detail is laid bare and devoured by a rabid public that I felt it went too far. Ms. Fons does not have a colon due to autoimmune disease. She recounts the pikes in her arms and near death experiences right out of the National Enquirer. It felt hammer handed after the third mention of the pikes in her arms and veins leading to her heart.
On the other hand Ms. Fons performs the transformation to Mary Minnelli with the same frantic and wonderfully over the top energy that Liza Minnelli seems to emanate. The drugged out days of Studio 54 are done in a wonderful dream sequence where members of the audience are invited to dance in the stage area. The wall is broken as they discuss whether or not they can really drink on stage and Fons gamely yells for the iced tea standing in for Jack Daniels and Splenda standing in for piles of cocaine. The references to Hedy Weiss’ remarks about the Neo-Futurists space being ‘a dump over a funeral home’ got to be a little tired as well. We get it. You all are kicking edgy in your face theatre butt and Weiss can suck it.
Fons’ performance is remarkable to watch just for the physicality of it. She is soaked in perspiration and it seems as if all of her nerves are exposed when she portrays Mary Minnelli trapped between realities. She manages to belt out some songs, run on a speeding treadmill, and recreate the "Cabaret" scene with updated music from the post modern icons-Madonna and Lady Gaga. It is a jaw dropping experience.
Performing Tonight: Liza Minnelli’s Daughter runs Thursdays , Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm through June 4th at The Neo-Futurarium at 5153 N. Ashland Ave. in Chicago. Tickets are $15, $10 for students/seniors with ID, or pay-what-you-can on Thursdays. (Reserve tickets online). Yes it really is over a funeral home but the brilliant creativity that is the life blood of the company gives off light and life!
Getting to love you
|Porchlight Music Theatre Chicago presents|
|The King and I|
|Written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II
Directed by L. Walter Stearns
Music Directed by Eugene Dizon
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5 | tickets: $35 | more info
Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer
L. Walter Stearns’ final staging for Porchlight Music Theatre (he’s moving on to manage the Mercury Theatre) is a splendid swan song. Efficient but never merely dutiful, this tender-loving revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 treasure lets the talent on this stage honor the brilliance on the page. Despite lacking the budgets of Marriott Theatre’s 2000 revival or the most recent one at Drury Lane Oakbrook in 2007, Porchlight never allows less to be lacking.
Besides, look at what they’re working with! It’s rewarding how much the R & H musicals amplify each other, yielding a whole much bigger than its parts. In The King and I we see a British schoolteacher who changes the children around her and shapes the future through her enlightened tutelage of the Crown Prince of Siam. Anna Leonowens anticipates Maria Von Trapp, an Austrian governess who changes the children and around and escapes the present to pursue the sound of music. Likewise, Flower Drum Song carefully chronicles the cultural changes in a community. Above all, like South Pacific, King and I delivers an action lesson in tolerance. Anna and the King learn from each pother, he forbearance and humility before the facts of life, love and death, she the discipline and tradition required to keep a nation together and, more importantly, unconquered.
The closest comparison outside the R & H canon is, interestingly, Fiddler on the Roof: Both musicals deal with central characters coping with change during convulsive historical periods, desperate to preserve tradition (and power) while wryly accepting the future, as much on their terms as possible.
The King’s transformation (and, by implication, that of Siam) is accomplished in stunning songs like “Getting to Know You” and “Shall We Dance?” that win us over from the first note. Well worth the succession from Gertrude Lawrence to Deborah Kerr to Donna Murphy, Brianna Borger’s warmly engaging Anna brings quicksilver resilience and five different kinds of love to her widow, mother, tutor, confidante and lover. Her patter songs, “Shall I Tell You What I Think of You?,” crackles with contagious indignation and hard-core spunk. The first Asian I’ve seen playing the King, burly Wayne Hu stamps the King with wizard timing, wry irascibility and bedrock dignity. The fact that he’s no infallible leader only makes his aspirations to authority more poignant and less threatening.
It’s impossible to overpraise Jillian Anne Jocson’s lovely and lyrical Tuptim, enchanting in “I Have Dreamed” and “We Kiss in Shadow” with ardent Erik Kaiko as her doomed beloved, or Kate Garassino’s elegant Lady Thiang, wisdom wrapped in reticence. The Siamese wives and children (here reduced to six) are marvels of grace in energy and as comely as a palace frieze. Likewise Bill Morey’s elaborate Eastern costumes, their shimmering and sumptuous fabrics lit by Mac Vaughey with what must be new colors, and Ian Zywica’s unit set with its Oriental throne room, filigreed archways, and burnished floor. (Flanking the king are dualistic symbols of East and West—a chess set and a statue of the Buddha.) Brenda Didier’s choreography, faithful to Jerome Robbins, turns “‘The Small House of Uncle Thomas’ Ballet” into a cascade of astonishment and artful reinvention.
For purists like me there’s one cavil: This revival’s two-piano accompaniment, however beautifully played by Eugene Dizon and Allison Hendrix, is nonetheless a letdown, robbing the songs of the rich orchestrations Rodgers intended. Less crucial, the delightful scene in which the ladies of the court try to maneuver inside European crinoline ballgowns and corsets is necessarily omitted. But new to me is the royal school’s anthem sung by Anna and her princely pupils, as well as a charming reprise of “A Puzzlement” sung by the sons of the principals that extends the cultural clash to the next generation. You win some, you lose some.
Not quite enough soul in ‘Soul Samurai’
|Infusion Theatre Company presents|
|Written by Qui Nguyen
Directed by Mitch Golob
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5 | tickets: $15-$25 | more info
Reviewed by Barry Eitel
Bloodthirsty shoguns run a post-apocalyptic New York City. A female warrior seeks revenge for her murdered girlfriend, armed with only a katana and a wise-cracking sidekick.
It’s a pretty sweet premise for a play. Especially when a live DJ is scoring the activities and comic book-style video projections provide visual gimmickry. Infusion Theatre Company’s production of Qui Nguyen’s Soul Samurai promises to attract nerds and action-addicts alike. If only the product lived up to the hype.
Nguyen’s play falls into the same pit many of the action movies he’s sending up fall into. Instead of a cohesive plot, the story just seems to be an excuse for the next battle. Even with director Mitch Golob at the helm and Geoff Coates crafting the complex sword brawls, the production can’t overcome the play’s flaws. The pacing of the entire show is jilted and the fights seem to be running at about 75%, not full speed. It’s fun, but it is not fun enough.
Nguyen writes in a style that is half neo-Kung Fu flick and half Blaxploitation. He sets his story several years after New York City has fallen to ultra-violent gangs and a few genuine psychopaths. We follow Dewdrop (Christine Lin) as she seeks to avenge the death of her lover, Sally December (Amy Dellagiarino), who was attacked by a mob of bad guys right in front of Dewdrop’s eyes. The narrative is chopped up so we also see how Dewdrop went from a demure, Asian college student to an urban Amazon. She battles through to Brooklyn, along with her loudmouthed pal Cert (Steve Thomas). But as she slashes deeper into the city, the thugs get more sinister. And maybe a soul-deprived Sally December is among them. Like any good hero, Dewdrop presses on to the bloody end.
I have to give Infusion props for bringing a tale on-stage that you usually don’t see—something action-based instead of focusing on a bunch of characters jabbering the whole time. Although the play is a unique beast for theatre, it doesn’t feel entirely original. While “Kill Bill” was Tarantino’s homage to Hong Kong cinema, it was also an entirely new tale. Soul Samurai seems like an homage to “Kill Bill”. It doesn’t help that the soundtrack is referenced at least twice.
While his production generally exudes the cool necessary for something like this, Golob’s show is flawed. On paper, the running time was an hour and 45 minutes; in reality, the show clocked a half hour over that. A lot of that was due to slow transitions and dragging scenes, including a training montage that overstays it’s welcome. And on opening night, at least, the on-stage action, music, and video weren’t entirely synced up.
The cast captures Nguyen’s tough, dog-eat-dog style well. Lin has a bit of tough time commanding the space, but she finds it eventually. She’s got the spunk, but she can’t always externalize it. Thomas is the highlight of the show, always flying at a breakneck pace and delivering his profanity-laced witticisms with flair. Other favorites include Glenn Stanton as a pimp-coat donning shogun and Evan Lee as the stereotypical sensei (“Sally” comes out as “Sarry”).
Considering how cool the show could be, the end product is just sort of disappointing. There’s a lot of flash, and Jesse Livingston’s musical styling adds some fun. But, for me anyway, it wasn’t enough to cover up the holes in Nguyen’s pedestrian script. How often, though, is there a chance to see live samurai battles in this city? The slice-and-dice novelty is indeed worth checking out.
Soul Samurai runs April 28 – June 5 at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave.
The performance schedule is Thursday – Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3
p.m. Tickets are $25 during the run with student, senior and industry
discounts available. Industry tickets, $15, are available at all Thursday
performances. Tickets may be purchased by calling 773-975-8150 or at
Photos by Anthony LaPenna
White-Trash angst in central Illinois…..a dark comedy
|American Blues Theater presents|
|Rantoul and Die|
|Written Mark Roberts
Directed by Erin Quigley
at Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater (map)
through May 22 | tickets: $32-$40 | more info
Surely few things are more artistically satisfying than watching Francis Guinan on stage in full-frontal, scene-stealing, emotional-meltdown mode. The man can make knocking over a chair resonate with the power of a Shakespearian soliloquy. Okay, maybe that’s a little hyperbolic. But not much. Guinan is one of Chicago’s MVP’s of the theatrosphere, and he’s in excellent form with American Blues Theater’s staging of Rantoul and Die. As is the rest of the stellar cast in playwright Mark Roberts’ profane study of white trash angst in the flatland middle of nowhere.
At roughly 110 miles south of Chicago and half an hour or so outside of Champaign, Rantoul is the flyover territory of flyover territory. In Roberts’ largely plotless, utterly tasteless and immensely entertaining dark comedy, the denizens of Rantoul are likewise the sort of folk who one tends to overlook if not outright avoid. These are a breed of loud, ignorant mouth-breathers to whom political correctness is a foreign concept. They refer to the developmentally disabled as "mongoloid retards." The closest they get to fine dining is stopping in at the local Dairy Queen instead of using the drive-thru.
But this group is also, in the four person ensemble directed by Erin Quigley, oddly likable. They may be at the bottom of society’s ladder but on that lowest of rungs, there is a singular integrity. These are people who say precisely what they think – the filters that most of us use to smooth out the rough edges of our uglier inclinations are absent in this group. There’s an honesty to their no-class brawling and profanity, perverse to be sure, but also unvarnished and unafraid. When Rallis, as pasty-faced a middle-age mope as you’ll ever encounter, fails in his attempt at suicide, his best friend Gary (Guinan) gives him a harsh dose of extreme tough love in lieu of sympathy:
“Suicide is like jerking off in a salad bar,” Gary berates, “There’s no regard for the people left behind.” From there, his get-a-grip lecture really gets profane.
The woefully depressed Rallis, it must be noted, is played by Alan Wilder. For those keeping track, that means that half the cast of Rantoul and Die is comprised of Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members. Wilder and Guinan have as long history, and their scenes together here have an ease, a depth and an effortless authenticity that only comes from years of working together. The women in the cast – Kate Buddeke as Rallis’ unhappy wife Debbie and Cheryl Graeff as Callie, Debbie’s manager down at the DQ – come from the storied ranks of the American Blues Theater. Together, the foursome is toxically effective.
Plenty happens in Roberts’ atmospheric tale, including a shooting that leaves one character brain dead (“Summabitch has deviled ham in his head”) about 40 minutes into the 90-minute piece. But plot isn’t the point here. Roberts’ peculiar, pungent brand of storytelling isn’t about a conventional arc so much as it is a portrait of a very particular demographic (although to be sure, each of the four characters are idiosyncratic individuals more than representatives of a type.)
The play works because the dialogue is so barbed-wire sharp and delivered with such deceptively effortless agility by Quigley’s ensemble. The filthy blue-collar rants of Debbie, Callie, Gary and Rallis are capsules of comedy as nasty and black as the black plague. Clearly, Rantoul is no place for those with a low tolerance for profanity, gruesomely violent imagery or extraordinarily vulgar sexual references.
As Rallis, Wilder is a quavering muddle of a whipped porch dog of a man, haplessly clinging to a wife who is beyond over him. As Rallis’ exasperated, long-out-of-love spouse, Buddeke is an evolving mixture of ruthlessness and regret. She also makes it clear that Debbie is a woman who is lonely and frustrated – and surprisingly vulnerable under all her toughness. Which brings us to Graeff, as the unnervingly cheerful Dairy Queen manager. She’s got a second act monologue that is both hair-raising in its horror-porn narrative and a sprightly testimony to the power of positive thinking and a sunny can-do attitude.
Given the lack of a plot and the jaw-dropping crudeness of the dialogue, you wouldn’t want Rantoul and Die to fall into the hands of amateurs. It takes a seasoned, top-tier group of artists to pull of something this tasteless with such brutal honesty. This production has that. One can only hope we see more of these ABT/Steppenwolf hybrids in the future.
All photos by Paul Marchese
A harshly relevant, yet gloriously hopeful masterpiece
|Broadway in Chicago presents|
|Next to Normal|
|Book/Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Michael Greif
at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe (map)
through May 8 | tickets: $32 – $95 | more info
Last year, the Pulitzer Prize board took a look at the short list from the subcommittee that makes recommendations on who should win the coveted award for drama. The board tossed the recommendations out, and instead bestowed the Pulitzer on Next to Normal, a show that the recommending body didn’t even rate as a semi-finalist. In some circles, the decision was viewed as an autocratic move illustrating the limitations of an unchecked board. Others applauded the decision, overjoyed that a musical about mental illness had catapulted the difficult topic into the national spotlight. Revisiting Next to Normal for the second time in as many years, we’re more certain than ever that the Pulitzer went to the right people.
On paper, the show sounds like the worst idea for a musical since “Springtime for Hitler”. Next to Normal has no dance numbers to speak of, no chorus line of cute chorines, no happy ending. It is about a woman who has shock treatments. It is also about a family that has been devastated by tragedy, perhaps beyond repair. It is about doctors who admit that nobody really knows how to cure mental illness and that finding an effective treatment for mood disorders is like locating a silver thread in a huge, cloudy swamp. It is about the futility of stumbling blindly through ad lib regimes of SRO inhibitors, benzodiazepines, lithium, Prozac, Cymbalta, Zoloft, Seroquel, and an endless alphabet soup of other chemistry-altering pills whose side effects range from dizziness to death. Clearly, we’re not in Shuffle-off-to-Buffalo territory here.
Yet in a country where, year after year, suicides outnumber homicides, Next to Normal is about as relevant, compelling and urgently necessary as theater gets. It also benefits from composer Tom Kitt’s gorgeous score, Brian Yorkey’s smart, insightful lyrics and direction by Michael Greif that grabs your heart within the first 10 seconds and doesn’t let go until long after the final curtain call. Next to Normal is not an easy show: It confronts you relentlessly with the despair, absurdity and in-curability of mood disorders. But it is also gloriously hopeful as it shines a compassionate spotlight on a topic about which there is far too much ignorance.
And make no mistake – that ignorance is rampant. Consider the language of suicide: We say “Diana killed herself,” as if the act were a choice, a decision uninfluenced by the very real illness of depression. When people die of cancer, the disease is blamed. When people die of depression, the victims are blamed.
So much for background on the societal necessity of this particular show. This is theater, so the real question isn’t about its social value. It’s about whether it is any good. The answer is yes. With significant caveat. The cast for the touring production is mostly as good as the Broadway ensemble, but the player who falls outside that “mostly” is crucial.
Next to Normal is anchored by Alice Ripley, who won the Tony for her performance as Diana Goodman on Broadway. But Ripley’s voice is not what it was on Broadway a year ago. Performing this vocally demanding score eight times a week has taken a toll. She struggles significantly with both pitch and with diction. Crucial lyrics are muddy, soaring top notes falter painfully. Pivotal numbers – I Miss the Mountains, You Don’t Know, Didn’t I See This Movie – don’t get the clarity the plot needs or the musicality the score contains.
Acting, Ripley remains superb, capturing the highs, lows and utter absurdities of mood disorders with an accuracy that is both deeply moving and blackly hilarious. But Next to Normal demands a great vocalist as well as a great actress. Opening night at the Bank of America (Shubert) Theatre, Ripley simply wasn’t consistent in the former capacity.
Still – perhaps paradoxically – Next to Normal remains a four star, must-see show. The supporting cast is pitch perfect. As Diana’s struggling 16-year-old daughter, Emma Hunton is heart-breaking in her vulnerability and defensive anger. With the short, bittersweet “Everything Else”, she delivers an ode to the crystalline order of Mozart’s music, with a poignant wistfulness that’s as sad as it is beautiful. As Diana’s son Gabe, Curt Hansen is thrilling, at once alluring and menacing and positively electrifying on the rock-infused “I’m Alive.” As Diana’s husband, Asa Somers’ Dan, delivers both the all-but unbearable frustration that results when a loved one’s struggle with mental illness seems never ending and years of treatment prove to be of dubious value. And as Diana’s psychiatrist, Jeremy Kushnier deftly portrays both the expertise and the impotence of a science that is more guess work than anything.
Next to Normal remains a magnificent musical. But with Ripley no longer in prime voice, it isn’t as magnificent as it might be.
Photos by Joan Marcus.