Category: Building Stage
In a theater community as diverse and talented as Chicago’s, every aspect and genre of stage productions can be found throughout the city on a given week. 2015 was no exception to this fact, as one can see from our reviewers’ picks of the year’s greatest and most memorable works.
Charles Dickens Begrudgingly
Performs ‘A Christmas Carol.’
Video work adds little to self-indulgent, tedious concoction
|Dog and Pony Theatre Company presents|
|Written by Sheila Callaghan
Directed by Devon DeMayo
at The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter (map)
through June 4 | tickets: $15-$20 | more info
Dog and Pony’s Roadkill Confidential just might be the weirdest amalgamation of pretentious meaninglessness we’ve encountered on a stage. Ever. Despite what the various program notes would have you believe, playwright Sheila Callaghan’s work is neither bold nor invigorating. It is simply a tedious barrage of grainy, often visually indecipherable video footage looming over a messy and ultimately pointless pastiche of verbal non-sequiturs and bizarre, modern dance-like interludes that seem to have no connection with the rest of the production.
In its sporadic moments of quasi-lucidity, Roadkill Confidential seems to be attempting some sort of satircal commentary on the everyday violence that consumes the world at large and/or humankind’s increasingly numb reaction to said violence. But the production comes across more confused than satirical. The video footage isn’t the only element of the production that’s mostly unintelligible. Roadkill Confidential also lacks a coherent narrative. Finally, director Devon De Mayo seems unconcerned with connecting the audience on any level whatsoever. The drama lurches along from one outlandish scene to the next without offering a single moment of emotional truth for the audience to latch on to.
Obviously, a traditional narrative and conventionally empathetic characters aren’t necessary for a play to work. From Ionesco to Beckett to Brecht and beyond, theater of the absurd and alienation can resonate with formidable power. But Callaghan’s absurdity seems to stand for nothing beyond its own self-indulgence.
The story, such as it is, centers on Trevor (Lucy Carapetyan), a churlish artist who specializes in creating sculptures made from roadkill. As charactere go, Trevor is two-dimensional, running the emotional gamut from A to B, or rather, from bitchy to bitchier. She is prone, as are the others on stage, to sudden outbreaks of stylized movement – rhythmic gyrations portrayed with an angst-ridden, dead seriousness but that read more like a parody of modern dance.
Trevor is being tracked by a one-eyed fellow known only as FBI Man (Sorin Brouwers), who believes the artist may be using her sculptures as weapons of germ-warfare. In between FBI Man’s rambling ruminations on high-tech surveillance gadgets and his own unflagging patriotism, Callaghan introduces Trevor’s tweedy partner William (Dan Smith), her seemingly brain-damaged stepson Randy (Andrew Goetten), and the fractured family’s uber-perky, socially clueless neighbor Melanie (Heather Townsend).
Among the five of them, there’s not a note of authenticity or a single moment that generates anything akin to empathy. What drives Trevor’s surly fascination with dead animals is anybody’s guess. As is the genesis of Randy’s bizarre obsession with cutlery. Combine the disconnected interludes of surreal, Isadora Duncan-on-absinthe undulations with the dearth of relatable humanity with video footage so muddy it looks like abstract art and you’ve got a show offers audiences very little incentive to stay interested.
Although to be sure, there is one video segment that clearly captures something recognizable, and recognizably part of the story: It is footage of a dog chained to a wall and left to starve as part of a gallery exhibit. It’s safe to assume no animals were actually harmed in the creation of Roadkill Confidential. Even so, the images of the purportedly starving mutt seem utterly gratuitous in their cruelty, an ugly, manipulative attempt by the playwright to be shocking. Equally ugly: A scene wherein Trevor, hands dripping with blood, wields a knife over a squirming, barely living squirrel (or something) and tells the struggling creature that she’s about to inflict pain that’ll hurt plike a “motherfucker.” Call me overly sensitive, but I see nothing worthwhile about watching small animals tortured to death, even when it’s only pretend.
As for Trevor’s final art project, it’s so beyond the pale as to beggar description. But just when you think Roadkill Confidential couldn’t get anymore pointlessly strange or manipulative in its attempts to be edgy and innovative, Callaghan introduces a musical number involving another dying creature Trevor has drafted into her artwork.
Successful plays don’t need likeable characters or traditional plots. It is quite possible to fuse traditional dramatic action with dance and video and come up with a compelling multi-disciplinary artistic hybrid. But Roadkill Confidential, in its strenuous attempts to be push the envelope of edginess and provocation, only succeeds in being tedious. It’s not innovative so much as it is inane. And in the end, uninteresting.
Roadkill Confidential continues through June 4, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for students and seniors. All previews plus Thursday and Sunday performances are pay-what-you-can. For tickets, call The Building Stage box office at 312-491-1369 or visit www.dogandponychicago.org. (All photos by Timmy Samuel)
‘Auctioning’ is a hard sell
|Dog & Pony Theatre Company presents|
|Auctioning the Ainsleys|
|Written by Laura Schellhardt
Directed by Dan Stermer
at The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter (map)
through Dec 18 | tickets: $15-$20 | more info
Reviewed by Barry Eitel
Laura Schellhardt’s Auctioning the Ainsleys is painfully, blatantly, and delightfully quirky. Dog & Pony Theatre Company’s treatment of the play feels like it was lifted from the mind of Wes Anderson or Diablo Cody. There’re plenty of sweaters, vintage silverware, and arrested development, and the show – directed by Dan Stermer – is undeniably fun. Unfortunately, the only thing it’s really missing is dramatic heft.
The titular Ainsleys are a gaggle of childish adult siblings who live with their reclusive mother in a massive auction house. Each has some neurosis that makes them perfect for the estate-sales business the family runs. Annalee (Faith Noelle Hurley) is more than a tad OCD; therefore, she oversees accounting. Amelia (Teeny Lamothe) obsesses over matching—both objects and people—which makes her perfect for setting up the auction lots. Aiden (Matthew Sherbach) eschews all material things, so he takes care of all the polishing, cleaning, and refurbishing (or distressing if that’s what people are buying). Their world is turned upside down when their aging mother, Alice (Kate Kisner), decides to auction off the house and everything in it. The enormous sale recalls wayward daughter Avery (Rebekah Ward-Hays), whose caustic domineering ways upset the Ainsleys’ balance even more.
Schelhardt’s play is about people, but it is also very much about things. It riffs on what our objects say about us in a myriad of intriguing, charming ways. According to Avery, a smart auctioneer is not selling tangible items, but the stories behind those things. Alice has a trinket she uses to symbolize each one of her children (a teapot, a stapler, etc.). Her deceased slave-driver of a husband, a character never seen but who drives much of the action nevertheless, represented each one of his brood with a price tag.
Stermer’s production is beautifully designed. Every design aspect clicks wonderfully with every other. Tracy Otwell’s and Annalee Johnson’s playful envisioning of the Ainsley homestead stuffs the vast Building Stage space. Stermer uses it very well, carving out scenes on the various levels. Kevin O’Donnell’s amusing, jazz-inspired soundtrack is also of note, slathering on the vibraphone and woodwinds.
Schelhardt falls prey to a flaw that plagues many young writers and theatre companies in our age of indie films. The play flits along for the first act, introducing the wacky characters and their defining eccentricities. As the Ainsleys’ auctioning continues, though, there is a jarring push to explore dark family secrets (abuse, prejudice, long-lingering hatred). This is done to manufacture some stakes, but the heavy issues feel very artificial considering the first half of the play. Many of the revelations uncovered in the latter half come off as either unbelievable, a bit dumb, or insignificant. Avery harbors a deep-seated hatred for her tyrannical dad, but her reasoning seems tangled.
Stermer collected a talented cast that breathes life into Schelhardt’s whimsical world. Lamothe is mousy and hilarious. Sherbach is another standout, often responding with ridiculous physical responses when Aiden cannot come up with words. Both the script and the cast occasionally fall back on unmotivated character idiosyncrasies. This includes Hurley’s cartoony hand gestures or, once he finds out Alice’s auditor (Austin Talley) is a collector, Aiden’s annoying habit of calling him a synonym of “souvenir” (knickknack, brickenbrak, curio—something that would be funny if done, like, only five times instead of five times every conversation). The best scenes, both in terms of writing and acting, are the ones between Talley and Kisner. They are sweet but weighty, peculiar but relatable, and the most dramatically interesting sections of the production. These few scenes are what the rest of the play wants to be.
Through Auctioning the Ainsleys, Dog & Pony exudes plenty of charming hipster quirk that is certifiably enjoyable. However, Schelhardt obviously wants to make some sincere comment on the cult of materialism. The message is lost in the clutter.
TICKET DEAL: Pay What You Can is available at the door every Thursday and Sunday provided the show is not sold out.
Franklin ends up lost once again
|The Building Stage presents|
|The Franklin Expedition|
|Conceived and Directed by Blake Montgomery
at The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter (map)
Through October 30 | tickets: $20-$25 | more info
Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes
Billed as "A slightly delusional, historically inaccurate, fragmented portrait of a lost explorer," The Building Stage’s world premiere The Franklin Expedition centers on Sir John Franklin, a British naval officer and Arctic explorer who mapped much of the northern coastline of North America. In 1845, he set out with two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, to traverse the last uncharted section of the Northwest Passage, but never returned. Numerous search and rescue missions were sent, but Franklin and his 128 men were lost. An 1854 expedition interviewed Inuits and learned that the ships had become icebound. The crews had tried to reach safety on foot, resorting to cannibalism in their efforts to survive, but all succumbed to the bitter conditions. A horrified Victorian public refused to believe this account of their heroic explorers, but recent discoveries seem to bear it out. The mystery of what happened to Franklin’s expedition inspired the ballad "Lord Franklin, “Wilkie Collins,” 1856 play The Frozen Deep and a variety of other artistic works.
You won’t find any of this out by watching The Franklin Expedition. Conceived and directed by Blake Montgomery, and developed and performed by David Amaral, Pamela Maurer, Chris Pomeroy, Jon Stutzman and Leah Urzendowski, the play takes a highly stylized and very self-referential view of Franklin.
"I don’t recognize myself," the character says at one point. As well he might.
All five of the performers play Franklin at different times, often several at once — sometimes in chorus — as well as his wife, his crew, Queen Victoria and a few other characters; then they step back to examine how well their differing portraits of the man worked out. At times, it seems more like a method-acting workshop than a play.
The timeline isn’t remotely chronological, slipping from Franklin on his frozen ship to his preparations for the voyage to his imaginings of his triumphant return to his funeral and around, through and back again. Stretches range from tense to solemn to humorous to outright zany.
Some parts work well: A scene in which the very expressive Stutzman, as Franklin, valiantly tries to rally his disheartened crew; a funny and highly anachronistic session in the snow; and a post-expedition meeting between the tall and hugely comic Pomoroy as Queen Victoria and the diminutive blonde Urzendowski as Franklin. Others, such as the back-patting acting critiques and an overlong scene in which Urzendowski, as the Queen, criticizes the British restraint of Amaral, as Lord Barrow, in eulogizing the lost Franklin, are less successful.
Musical interludes by the sweetly voiced Maurer, sometimes accompanied by other cast members, include some very nice folk songs, including a lovely rendition of "Lord Franklin." The multi-talented performers accompany on fiddle, guitar, keyboards, ukulele and washboard.
It’s definitely interesting, the performances are very well done and the concept of the ever-changing Franklin quite cleverly executed. Yet, overall, the play — 90 minutes without intermission — never quite seems to come together. It seems a collection of disjointed scenes. I’d really have liked to see more history and action and less theatrical navel gazing.
In the end, despite all these players, Franklin himself is lost.