Category: Pavement Group
Another year, another 12 months of great theater! 2013 blessed the Windy City with inspired new works and riveting revivals from a wide range of companies – the largest equity houses to the smallest of Chicago’s storefronts. Taking into account the 600+ productions that we reviewed in 2013, here are our picks for the best of the best. Bravo!! (note: for the 3rd year in a row, we’re honored to have the national website Huffington Post use our choices for their Top 10 Chicago productions!)
Gender bending, ribbon dancing and talking chickens
Reviewed by Keith Ecker
MilkMilkLemonade, Pavement Group‘s newest theatrical undertaking, has all the conventions of a children’s play. You have the highly animated narrator, talking animals, a chintzy cardboard set, a slide whistle and heaping handfuls of scenery chewing. But the adult comedy is far from kid’s stuff. The play also features exposed mock penises, an Andrew Dice Clay impression and a little boy ribbon dancing to Nina Simone. It’s in the clashing of these two genres, the traditional children’s play and the bawdy adult comedy, where the piece mines much of its humor.
And there certainly is a lot of humor. MilkMilkLemonade is a riot, thanks in no small part to the extraordinarily talented and committed cast. And although the play lacks an emotional depth that would raise it to a four-star level, it’s not really about thought provocation. The goal here is campy comedy on par with the likes of Charles Busch or a British panto. And in this respect, it succeeds.
The cheekily named play is about a young farm boy named Emory (Matt Farabee) who, despite his conservative surroundings, harbors fabulous dreams of singing, dancing and stardom. He is not at all modest or shy when flamboyantly proclaiming his desires to be rich and famous or when practicing his Bob Fosse-inspired routines.
Unfortunately, being effeminate in rural America isn’t easy. Emory is the focus of ridicule among his peers, including neighbor Elliot (Jessica London-Shields). Elliot is a rough-and-tough ragamuffin who unknowingly serves as host to an evil parasitic twin. Despite Elliot’s public harassment of Emory, he hides a secret affection.
Emory is looked after by his Nanna (John Zinn), a salt-of-the-earth chicken farmer who is dying of cancer. Although her maternal love for Emory is unquestionable, she worries about his sensitivity and softness.
Meanwhile, Emory has a lone confidant—a giant talking chicken named Linda (Cyd Blakewell). Like Emory, Linda too has dreams that reach beyond the farm. She wants to be a comic. Will she live to see her big break, or will she be the feature attraction on a dinner plate?
The play’s humor shines through because of the brilliance of its performers. Farabee does an excellent job countering Emory’s boyhood innocence with his lustful sultriness. Blakewell embodies the Liza Minnelli, messy best friend archetype, while Zinn brings down the house with just the mere pronunciation of the word "chickens" (he pronounces it as "chickowns"). London-Shields evokes the most emotional depth by infusing real compassion into her portrayal of a sexually confused adolescent. And Sarah Rose Graber—who fills a number of roles including the narrator and who previously showed off her acting chops in Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s The Book of Liz (our review)—continues to display an energy and innate sense of comedy that makes her one of the finest comedic actresses in Chicago.
Director Cassy Sanders certainly had her work cut out for her. The script is manic. Monologues interrupt scenes, the narrator breaks the fourth wall and wacky scenarios are paired with serious subject matter. Sanders reins everything in to create a cohesive piece that has a definite arch and a quick pace. However, I would like to see a little more fluctuation in the tone. Sanders passes up a few opportunities for emotional vulnerability that could create added depth to the production.
I also wish the playwright’s biography was listed in the program. Young New York-based playwright Joshua Conkel penned the play, which garnered several accolades, including an award for Best Off-Off Broadway Show in 2009 by New York Press. MilkMilkLemonade evidences Conkel’s strong voice, whimsy and unique sense of humor.
If you’re in the mood for a queer campy comedy, you can’t go wrong with MilkMilkLemonade. Although it’s in the style of a children’s play, the production’s adult humor is not for kids. Yet, its message of self-love is suitable for all ages.
All photos by Joel Moorman.
Even high school sub-cultures demand conformity.
Pavement Group presents:
by Barry Eitel
You can tell Gregory Moss’ play punkplay is pretty rebellious from the fact that the title refuses to be capitalized. Pavement Group tears up Moss’ play as their entry to Steppenwolf’s new Garage Rep rotation that showcases several exciting young Chicago companies. This 75-minute crude, rude, yet ultimately fascinating drama tells the tale of two teenage boys (a gangly Alexander Lane and Matt Farabee , who doesn’t look a day over 14) growing up in Reagan’s America and diving head first into the world of punk rock. Over the ensuing year or so from hearing their first punk record, we get to watch the duo start a band, idolize girls along with more extreme (read: homeless) punks, and masturbate (a few times). Moss’ script has its holes, but director David Perez and his energetic cast railroad right over them. If you can stomach the scuzziness, this is one great coming-of-age story.
I was wondering which choices were Perez’s decisions or written in the play. Either way, the semi-presentational/realistic/fantastical world located in the Steppenwolf Garage space grabs you and doesn’t let go. Scenic designer Grant Sabin, who actually designed all three shows, has created something like a robo-tripping Glass Menagerie. The set is simple but allows for all sorts of manipulation, projection, and imagination. Nearly all of the products, including beer, comics, and erotic videos, are painted white and slapped with a simple eponymous label, a homage to punk classic Repo Man (which starred a young Emilio Estevez).
Also, all the actors wear roller skates (sort of a Sex Pistol’s Starlight Express)
Lane and Farabee have a great energy together. Somewhat zombified, Duck (Lane) sees himself as the ultimate judge of what is punk. Mickey (Farabee) is bright-eyed and impressionable, yet comes across as much more diverse than his close-minded counterpart. The cast is rounded out by Keith Neagle and Tanya McBride, who play multiple parts with gusto. One of the most bizarre dream/hallucination sequences I’ve ever seen features McBride in a bikini top and a Reagan mask. It’s an image that won’t leave me for a long time.
Moss’ play covers a lot of territory; his characters trek the already epic journey of high school with the added objective of tearing down the bourgeois, Molly Ringwald culture that surrounds them. It’s a monumental task. Moss does a pretty good job of navigating this tumultuous world, but the script could be condensed. Mickey and Duck take in a pair of transients from Montreal at one point, which didn’t make a whole lot of sense. Also, Duck’s family situation is explained in the first scene when he moves in with Mickey (he was kicked out of his house), but not much information is given about Mickey’s familial life. You begin to wonder what his parents think about him harboring Duck in his room, which transforms from a stark suburban white to a vomit of graffiti. That missing relationship doesn’t take away much because the production wallows in abstraction, but it would be nice to know something about it (which might be a whole play in itself: groundedplay). Some of the longer speeches wax poetical, and audience interest drops. Some information is extraneous and some is muddled, which suggests Perez and Moss could make the show tighter.
Perez’s production shows how tough and confusing it can be to grow up, like “Breakfast Club” with more spike chokers. Duck and Mickey must face the fact that the punk scene might just be another high school subculture demanding conformity. Luckily, the Black Flag records give way to Sonic Youth, not Sum 41, and we all learn something about ourselves.