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REVIEW: I Am My Own Wife (Boho Theatre)

Peter Robel shows grace & poise in this exquisite one-man show

my-own-wife

Boho Theatre presents:

I Am My Own Wife

 

By Doug Wright
Co-Directed by Peter Marston Sullivan and Stephen M Genovese
Thru February 13th (ticket info)

Review by Aggie Hewitt

Watching a one-man show is as terrifying as watching Philippe Petit walk on a high wire between the Twin Towers. At any moment he can come crashing down, flailing and unstoppable, leaving the audience with a bloody mess that they never asked for. When someone chooses that kind of undertaking, they make an oath to their audience. They say, “I promise not to fall. I promise you I can do this.” A one-man show is dangerous. Not in an artsy way, where it’s so provocative that it’s very existence is dangerous, it’s dangerous because it can be so embarrassing. The actor has nothing to hide behind. Even with a spectacularly written show, like Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife is, no amount of great writing is going to stop an actor from becoming Tobias Funke if he derails mid-performance. Sometimes people go to the theater for a grown-up version of a rollercoaster: with every rise and fall of the actors ability one can feel their body tense with the fear of witnessing something truly shameful. That doesn’t happen at Boho Theatre, where Peter Robel, playing all the 35+ characters makes it all the way across the high wire, with such grace and poise that you will forget to be scared at all.

wife I Am My Own Wife was originally created by Doug Wright, with developmental help from Moises Kaufman and the actor Jefferson Mays. It explores the life of German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf as she survived both the Nazi and Communist regimes, and Doug Wright’s obsession with her. The play has that lovely, sad bookishness of a Moises Kaufman play, and his presence is felt in the narrative. The scenes taken from real transcripts of interviews between Doug and Charlotte have a documentary feel to them, a feeling that is almost academic. It’s Doug Wright’s love of learning about Charlotte, and not his love of Charlotte herself that makes this play an intellectual treat. The more you learn about Charlotte, the more you want to fact check yourself, to learn everything possible about this enigmatic character. When the lights come up at the end of the second act, the only thing you know for sure about Charlotte is that you want to learn more about her. What better way for a biographical piece to end?

All of this great writing would fall flat however if it were not being presented by a great actor. With something as audacious as a one-man show, the last thing you’d expect an actor to do is to take back seat to the story, but that is exactly what Peter Robel does in this performance. During the course of what must be an exhausting show, Peter Robel never once stops to let you see him working. His acting textbook pure; it’s as if Uta Hagen came down from heaven and instructed him in great storytelling. Since I assume she didn’t, a lot of credit probably goes to co-directors Peter Marston Sullivan and Stephen M Genovese.

The play works so well because even though Peter Robel’s performance is as amazing as watching a marathon runner pushing himself past normal human capacity for endurance, each choice that is made ultimately serves the play. The reason that this one-man show isn’t embarrassing is that it’s a great story, told by smart people. Every mind that went into this production, from Doug Wright to John Zuiker, who designed lovely and elegant set was focused on telling a simply and well-crafted story. This is a production that proves that when integrity is in the intentions, wonderful theater can be achieved.

Rating: ★★★★

January 21, 2010 | 1 Comment More

REVIEW: The Wedding (TUTA Theatre Chicago)

Over the Top and Into Your Panties

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TUTA Theatre presents:

The Wedding

 

By Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Martin and Rose Kastner
Directed by Zeljko Djukic
thru February 14th (ticket info)

by Paige Listerud

You can keep Mother Courage or The Threepenny Opera—for me, right now nothing expresses Bertolt Brecht’s rage against the bourgeoisie like The Wedding, his early 70-minute lampoon of the middle class at play. But then, the folks at TUTA really know how to bring it. Their production onstage at Chopin Theatre’s downstairs studio is an almost ceaseless cascade of escalating inappropriateness. Like so many over-the-top family get-togethers, once drinking is in full swing, the loosing of social bounds leads to some pretty dark places.

wedding4 It’s a show to return to again and again. Zeljko Djukic’s superb cast wrings high schadenfreude out of every moment of humiliation and disappointment. Meticulous is the word that could describe each ensemble member’s performance—the most minor reactions between them give both humor and weight to wedding party developments–only it’s too dry and sanitized a term to describe all that really goes on. No, satire evolves both naturally and perversely from both unspoken and exposed disillusionments with relationships, marriage, and family. More essentially, they know how to play people both bored and boring, utterly irritated with each other from start to finish, doing everything to break each awkward silence and reaching extremes to fill each oppressively meaningless minute.

For sheer outrageousness, Andy Hager takes the crown, mostly because his character’s voyeuristic craving for poon tang doesn’t know the meaning of discretion and, since Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan are nowhere in sight, he must do the best he can with women in present company. Add a down-low tango, mixed with a naughty little ditty about bangin’ girls and you’ve got the kind of depraved degenerate you’d like to pass the time with at the next stultifying wedding you must attend—if only you could keep him far away from your sister.

wedding2 Djukic’s direction is a confident but invisible hand in the middle of all the mania, allowing mischief to blossom in the most unexpected corners while never allowing it to distract focus. And he knows how to coax the action back to its comic center once things have gone too far and Brechtian darkness beneath the levity shows its ugly head. Original music by Jesse Terrill contemporizes Brecht’s farce and provides the characteristic distancing necessary to comment on the action. A Greek chorus unto herself, aided by only scant few lines, the Bridegroom’s Mother (Laurie Larson) comments on the action by the force of baleful looks alone.

But an otherwise unstoppable production grinds to a clunking pace once Bride (Jennifer Byers) and Bridegroom (Trey Maclin) finally have been relieved of their obnoxious guests. If the dramatic choice is to show lack of chemistry between the newlyweds, it might be well to reconsider it. After all, passion is always a two-edged sword with Brecht. Love suffers from entropy as surely as any edifice and passionate hatred often emerges from the same messy, primordial, and unpredictable place as passionate love.

 

Rating: ★★★½

The Wedding runs January 14 – February 14, 2010, at Chopin Theatre Studio, 1543 W. Division, Chicago. For tickets call 847-217-0691 or go online to www.tutato.com

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January 21, 2010 | 4 Comments More

REVIEW: Dreamgirls (Broadway in Chicago)

Talented Cast Shimmers and Shines

 

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Broadway in Chicago presents:

 

Dreamgirls

 

Book and Lyrics by Tom Eyen
Music by
Henry Krieger
Directed and Choreographed by
Robert Longbottom
thru January 31st (ticket info)

By Keith Ecker 

dreamgirls4 If there is one thing the stage production of Dreamgirls will always have over the film, it is the sequins. Video cannot convey the absolute beauty of the costumes that adorn the actresses, costumes that appear just as glittery as Bob Mackie’s most flamboyant creations. William Ivey Long gets a hat tip for costume design, which comes as no surprise considering the man is a veteran of Broadway. He’s won five of the 11 Tony nominations he’s received and is an inductee in the Theatre Hall of Fame, a hall that I am sure is just as glamorous as Long’s aesthetic sensibility.

Of course, Dreamgirls is more than just elegant gowns and flared pants—it’s about the singing. And this show, produced by Broadway in Chicago at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, definitely delivers. These actors can wail. From guttural growls that convey the rawest of emotions to controlled, sustained tones that capture the world-weariness of the characters, the Dreamgirls cast sports an impressive set of pipes.

The play is a fictional tale based on the true tribulations of such early R&B acts as the Supremes. At the opening, three female singers from Chicago, known as the Dreamettes, hope to get their big break at the legendary Apollo Theater in New York. Effie (Moya Angela) is the full-figured lead with an Aretha Franklin-like strength to her voice. Her friends Deena (Syesha Mercado) and Lorrell (Adrienne Warren) serve as her back up. Effie’s brother C.C. (Trevon Davis) writes all their music. The group doesn’t make the cut at the Apollo, but thanks to their newfound manager, Curtis (Chaz Lamar Shepherd), they get a 10-week touring gig backing up-and-comer Jimmy Early (Chester Gregory). Effie doesn’t take well to the idea of being second banana, but she goes along for the good of the group.

Curtis eventually spins the Dreamettes off into their own act, now known as the “Dreams”. Despite having a romantic relationship with Effie, he bumps her from lead for the more camera-friendly Deena, who Curtis then begins courting. Becoming increasingly agitated and unpredictable, Effie is replaced, leading to the musical’s famous torch song “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going.”

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The Dreams wrestle with fame, Curtis continues his greed-induced destructive path and Effie must find herself after being forced to realize she is not the center of the universe. And did I mention the sequins?

Angela as Effie is brilliant. Her rendition of “And I’m Telling You I’m Not Going” is a showstopper. As she staggers, sways and belts out the tune during the complete and utter breakdown of Effie’s ego, your gut is as wrenched as your ears are pleasured.

Equally impressive is Gregory’s portrayal of Jimmy Early. The role is incredibly demanding, requiring superb vocal control, an impeccable sense of soul, physical endurance and strength and precise comedic timing. Gregory nails it, juggling all these attributes at once. A perfect example of this display of multi-talent takes place during the number “The Rap,” where Jimmy throws off all restraints and reclaims his sense of soul. For those unfamiliar with the play, I’d rather not spoil the scene, but I will say there’s ample dipping.

The set design is minimal, providing an open space for lots of jumping, jiving and sashaying. Most of the set is composed of five very tall video screens, which are used to full effect. At one point, a camera cleverly positioned above the stage displays a Busby Berkeley-style chorus number as if the performers were a cluster of synchronized swimmers.

There were a few sound issues. During the first act, mics were set too low and sometimes cut out. There was also a technical gaff during the reprise of “Cadillac Car.” But such issues aren’t likely to recur.

Beautiful both visually and aurally, Broadway in Chicago’s production of Dreamgirls is sure to please both the casual theatergoer and the diehard musical fanatic.

Rating: ★★★★

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January 20, 2010 | 4 Comments More

Wednesday Wordplay – Harry Potter and Martina Navritolova

Inspirational Quotes

All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.
            — Arthur Schopenhauer

I dwell in possibility…
            — Emily Dickinson

There is nothing like a newborn baby to renew your spirit – and to buttress your resolve to make the world a better place.
            — Virginia Kelley

Every day holds the possibility of a miracle.
            — Elizabeth David

I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming… suddenly you find – at the age of 50, say – that a whole new life has opened before you.
            — Agatha Christie

First say to yourself what you would be; and then do what you have to do.
            — Epictetus

Really listening and suspending one’s own judgment is necessary in order to understand other people on their own terms… This is a process that requires trust and builds trust.
            — Mary Field Belenky

What helps luck is a habit of watching for opportunities, of having a patient, but restless mind, of sacrificing one’s ease or vanity, of uniting a love of detail to foresight, and of passing through hard times bravely and cheerfully.
            — Charles Victor Cherbuliez

Make it a rule of life never to regret and never to look back. Regret is an appalling waste of energy; you can’t build on it; it’s only for wallowing in.
            — Katherine Mansfield

The moment of victory is much too short to live for that and nothing else.
            — Martina Navratilova

It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live.
            — J. K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, 1997

Tears may be dried up, but the heart – never.
            — Marguerite de Valois

A person reveals his character by nothing so clearly as the joke he resents.
            — Georg Christoph Lichtenberg

 

Urban Dictionary

mid-day crisis

when one is in a desperate need for a siesta because they become extremely tired in the afternoon and coffee isn’t cutting it any longer.

"working at panera sucked today after that wild night of drinking. i had the worst mid-day crisis ever."

working hard or hardly working

Funny play on words used by successful management types. Can be combined with finger guns for the ultimate combo.

Supervisor: Hey Joe! Working hard or hardly working? Hahahaha.

January 20, 2010 | 0 Comments More

Shows Opening/Closing this week

chicago

Show Openings

 

“Master Harold”…and the Boys

TimeLine Theatre

The Alcyone Festival 2010 - Halcyon Theatre

The Castle - Oracle Theatre

Desperately Seeking - Chemically Imbalanced Theater

Dreamgirls - Cadillac Palace Theatre (Broadway in Chicago)

First Words - Greenhouse Theater Center (MPAACT)

The Dames Storm Division - New Millenium Theatre

Glitter in the Gutter - Annoyance Theatre

Harper Regan - Steep Theatre

Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape - Goodman Theatre

King of the Mountain - Chemically Imbalanced Theater

Nighthawk Sandwich - Storefront Theater (DCA Theatre)

Phedra - New World Repertory Theatre

Real Bros of DuPage County - Gorilla Tango Theatre

Savage in Limbo - Village Players Performing Arts Center

Short Shakespeare! The Comedy of Errors - Chicago Shakespeare

WHACK! - Gorilla Tango Theatre

The Year of Magical Thinking - Court Theatre 

 

chicagoatnight 

Show Closings

 

Annie - Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University

The Capitol Steps - North Shore Center for the Performing Arts

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan - Dance Center of Columbia College

Give Us Monday - Gorilla Tango Theatre

Icarus - Lookingglass Theatre

Little Women - Circle Theatre

Mamma Mia! - Rosemont Theatre

Mark and Laura’s Couples Advice Christmas Special - Gorilla Tango Theatre

 

Openings/Closings list courtesy of League of Chicago Theatres

January 20, 2010 | 0 Comments More

REVIEW: 24th Annual Young Playwrights Festival

The voices of the future are here.

 

YPF24 (2010)

January 7-31, 2010

Fridays and Saturdays @ 8:00 p.m.

Sundays @ 3:00 p.m.

special first preview performance on Thursday, January 7 @ 8:00 p.m.

Click here to purchase tickets

(All seats just $15 each)

 

review by Oliver Sava

The three works that comprise Pegasus Players‘ 24th Annual Young Playwrights Festival offer unique views on youth, mortality, and abuse, and were all written by high school students. Aided by professional writing mentors, the playwrights are given the opportunity to see their ideas take shape under the guidance of some of the city’s top directing, acting, and design talent. The results are positive across the board, but like any group of adolescents, maturity varies from script to script.

 


nowhere-people

The Nowhere People

Gabriella Bonamici‘s heartbreaking drama about widower Ernie (Benjamin Sprunger) and his mission to communicate with his dead wife, Ann, is the highlight of the evening, expertly directed by Kimberly Senior, who has steadily created a career around her ability to capture grief on stage (see: Timeline Theatre’s All My Sons and Next Theatre’s The Overwhelming). Luckily, Ernie’s neighbor Danny (Alice Wedoff) has a ghost of her own, and she’s been building a ghost-machine to open a portal to the spirit world and send it back. Bonamici’s script moves with fluidity and ease, filled with humor while never losing the gravity of the loss of a loved one on the human spirit. The script also handles exposition beautifully, gradually revealing essential information about the characters as the dramatic tension builds, and each discovery adds a new layer to the conflict. As landlord Sid (Michael Gonring) becomes increasingly concerned with Danny’s mental health and the ghost-machine’s uncanny ability to knock out the building’s power, Ernie has to decide between his own life and the answers he so desperately seeks. Sprunger and Wedoff have great chemistry, bonding through their joint experiences of loss and their common goal of reaching into the afterlife, and both actors are fully committed to the slightly far-fetched circumstances. The actors shine because of the script, a subtle yet powerful examination of the ghosts that haunt us all, and the extraordinary measures people go to escape the past.

 

Rating: ★★★½


 

 Roller Coaster

roller-coastTrapped atop a roller coaster, Effie (Rinska Carrasco) and Milo (Gonring) discover the unexpected connections they share while learning a bit about themselves. Gixiang Lee‘s hilarious script balances high school dramedy with a hefty load of cultural references that actually serve to flesh out the characters rather than simply give the piece an air of relevance. Effie enthusiastically singing Salt N’ Pepa’s "Push It" as they are elevated to the top of the coaster while Milo clings for dear life, terrified at what awaits below. Total opposites, but you know what they say about opposites. Lee’s script isn’t realistic, the Effie and Milo’s relationship is almost completely based on coincidence, but it is her fearlessness with the comedy that makes the piece so memorable. Milo’s list of fears, ranging from heights to large rabbits to "the small but ever present threat of death from falling out of bed," is brilliant, and the T.P. Employee (Sprunger) that comes to their non-rescue is played with a ridiculousness that borders on caricature but works in the context of the play. The humor might not be the most sophisticated, but Lee creates sympathetic characters that are easy to root for, making Roller Coaster an excellent comedic piece with real heart.

 

Rating: ★★★



deliver-me

deliver me from evil

 

In therapy after being hospitalized for attempted suicide, Magdelina (Wedoff) reveals a history of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse inflicted by her mother (Gilmary Doyle) in Kat Blackburn‘s deliver me from evil.The strain of past trauma begins to weigh on Magdelina’s relationship with girlfriend Soda (Caren Blackmore), and she must confront her demons in order to salvage the only loving relationship she has ever known. Petra (Carrasco), Edward (Gonring), and Jenny (Mildred Marie Langford) represent the childish, masculine, and feminine aspects of Magdelina’s tortured psyche, giving form to the poetry in her journal. These sequences, combinations of interpretive movement with symbolic imagery, have varying degrees of success. One particularly chilling entry features the four teens cutting together, the act taking on a communal nature reminiscent of ritual sacrifice, but at times the poetic sections feel a little too much like they were ripped from a teenager’s journal – angstful , angry, and lacking in maturity. The actor’s do a fine job with the material, but deliver feels the most like a play written by a high school student of the three.

Rating: ★★½

January 19, 2010 | 0 Comments More

Theater Thursday: Glitter in the Gutter

Thursday, January 21

Glitter in the Gutter

by Kellen Alexander 
Annoyance Theatre
4830 N. Broadway, Chicago

glitterinthegutterEnjoy a pre show reception with food and drink and then get your wig caps and stilettos on to visit Pepper LaRoo and Velveeta Fitzgerald, inseparable drag queen roommates that dream of hitting it big. Inspired by John Waters, "Designing Women" and Dionne Warwick, Glitter In The Gutter offers a fresh look at drag culture while paying R-E-S-P-E-C-T to it’s roots. The first ever live drag queen sitcom followed by a post-show dialogue with members of the cast and director.

Event begins at 7 p.m.
Show begins at 8 p.m.

TICKETS ONLY $15 

For reservations please call 773-561-4664 and mention "Theater Thursdays."

January 18, 2010 | 0 Comments More

REVIEW: I Hate Hamlet (Big Noise Theatre)

Barrymore’s ghost walks through ‘I Hate Hamlet’

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Big Noise Theatre Company presents:

I Hate Hamlet

By Paul Rudnick
Directed by
Craig Gustafson
at
Prairie Lakes Theater, Des Plaines
Through Feb. 7 (ticket info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Fluffy as cotton candy, Paul Rudnick‘s 1991 screwball comedy, I Hate Hamlet, numbers among those navel-gazing theatrical-themed plays that theater people always find enchanting. In this case, they’re right: Full of witty one-liners and ridiculous absurdities, this is a very silly, but very funny play.

hamlet14 Inspired when Rudnick lived in a New York apartment that had been home to famed actor John Barrymore (1882–1942), the comedy, currently in production by Big Noise Theatre in Des Plaines, follows up-and-coming TV-star Andrew Rally (the boyishly handsome Mark Mocarski), who moves to New York from L.A. when his hit medical series is cancelled. His elderly agent (Aimee Kennedy) has convinced him to give the stage a try, and although he remains ambivalent about both his desire and his ability to play the role, he’s been cast as Hamlet at Shakespeare in the Park.

Meanwhile, his real-estate broker, Felicia (Terre Virgilio), who sidelines as a medium, sells him the late Barrymore’s New York digs, with — you guessed it — the ghost of the stage and screen legend — dressed for his most famous role — in residence. Although the living Barrymore deserted the Shakespearean stage for Hollywood, his shade (Rob Nowak) is determined to turn the diffident Andrew into an accomplished Hamlet.

That’s not the absurd part.

Andrew’s ditzy, deeply romantic girlfriend, Deirdre (Julie Bayer), is thrilled that he’s playing the sweet Danish prince, giving him hope that she’ll end their long celibacy. A 29-year-old virgin, Deirdre’s been putting off the infatuated and importunate Andrew’s propositions and proposals for years, waiting to feel that the time and the man are perfect. On the other hand, Andrew’s pal Gary (Aaron G. Stash), a fast-talking, quintessential hyphenated Hollywood writer-director-producer, is trying to lure the actor back to L.A. with a high-paying contract for the pilot of a lame new sitcom.

If you can believe in a chastely monogamous TV actor who turns down lucrative roles, you might as well believe in ghosts.

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As the ghost, Nowak brings the swashbuckling Barrymore to booming life. By far the strongest actor in this uneven production, Nowak all but carries the show, overcoming an awful wig, legs that cry out for padded tights and the faltering delivery of castmates. Bayer, suitably flaky as Deirdre, and Stash, expansive and frenetic as the big-talking Gary, also turn in respectable performances.

Director Craig Gustafson has not been able to coax fast-paced dialog from his cast, and poor timing often puts a drag on what ought to be glib exchanges, making some of Andrew’s self-criticisms ring painfully true. Still, with Nowak’s Barrymore and colorful touches such as Teresa Kerrigan‘s flamboyant costuming of Felicia, this good-hearted production captures the overall silliness of the script.

Rating: ★★

 

January 17, 2010 | 3 Comments More

Sunday Night Sondheim: *Frogs* Opening Fanfare

Frogs – “Opening Fanfare" featuring Nathan Lane

January 17, 2010 | 0 Comments More

REVIEW: The True Story of the 3 Pigs (Emerald City Theatre)

Hamming it up for the over 5 set!

3pigs

Emerald City Theatre presents:

The True Story of the Three Pigs

By Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith
Adapted by Alyn Cardarelli
Directed by Ernie Nolan
Thru March 25th (ticket info)

By Katy Walsh

Joe Goldammer (little pig) with Ruby Aufmann The media investigates a double ham-icide. Emerald City Theatre presents The True Story of the Three Pigs. The play starts where the three pigs fairytale ends. Two pigs are dead. The wolf is in jail. Random Adjective, a reporter, has been assigned to examine the evidence. The audience is invited to accompany her as greenhorn reporters. Her investigation leads to interviews with the surviving pig, Red Riding Hood, and the wolf. The True Story of the Three Pigs is an interactive play that teaches children that there are many sides to a story and to always cover your mouth when you sneeze.

Joe Goldammer uses distinctive voices to play multiple roles: a high pitch squeak for the surviving pig, garble growls for nana wolf, and portrays Red Riding Hood as a German research expert on wolves. Although entertaining for adults, Goldammer’s best comedic moments may be lost on the little ones. Samantha Nicodemus plays Random Adjective as a fast talking reporter from the 1940’s. Nicodemus does a great job of keeping the kids connected to what’s happening by reviewing the evidence after each interview. Matt Olson is the Big Bad Wolf or Alexander T. Wolf. In two of the crime reenactments, Olson is the stereotyped Big Bad Wolf. However, when Alexander T. Wolf gets to tell his version of the story, he is a vulnerable, misunderstood wolf with allergies. Ernie Nolan  directs the action and keeps the cast animated with exaggerated gestures to elicit giggles.

pigs2It’s obvious upon entering the Apollo Theatre that Emerald City Theatre loves kids! They keep the 60-minute show interactive. Kids volunteer to come up on stage to verify huff puff results or model reporter moxie. After each interview, the audience members (i.e., greenhorn reporters) are invited to ask questions and assess the 5 W’s and 1 H (who, what, when, where, why and how). The repetitive nature of the reenactments help the younger audience members follow the story. Emerald City also adds to the children’s theatrical experience by providing coordinating gifts and games, pre-show pig-snout-making activity and post-show autographs with the cast. The kids even decide one of three endings. Applause determines what the newspaper headline will be. (for the opening performance the greenhorn reporters voted that the wolf was actually innocent)

The show promotes its target audience as 3-8 years old. Observing the children in the audience, a 5 years-or-over rating seems more realistic. Newspaper reporter, ham on a platter, German scientist – the story has some complicated elements to follow. Although the cast has colorful costumes (Ernie Nolan), the minimal scenery isn’t visually exciting. Unable to follow the story and without colorful stimulation, the pre-schoolers may become victim to the paparazzi. They don’t care about the truth! They want the three pigs fairytale.

Rating: ★★★

Helpful links:

3LittlePigs-Emerald

Matt Olson as the Big Bad Wolf (aka Alexander T. Wolf) greets greenhorn reporters Max and Ruby after the performance.


Creative team includes: Nic Jones (lighting), Joe Court (sound), Jenny Pinson (props), Joshua Lansing (technical director) and Scott Deter (stage manager)

January 17, 2010 | 2 Comments More

REVIEW: The (edward) Hopper Project (WNEP Theatre)

Though a brilliant concept, this project lacks dramatic arc

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WNEP Theater presents:

The (edward) Hopper Project

conceived by Jen Ellison
directed by Don Hall
thru February 21st at The Storefront Theatre 

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

There’s no doubt but that there are narrative riches embedded in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Gaze at them even momentarily and the stories take shape, treasures of the mind’s eye that form with the organic spontaneity only the most gifted artists can inspire. Hopper seems like a natural for translation from canvas to the stage; capture the silent depths within the deceptively simple angles and colors of “Early Sunday Morning,” “Room in New York,” “Office at Night” or “Nighthawks,” and you’ve got a piece of wonderful theater.

WNEP_TheHopperProject_01 With The (edward) Hopper Project, WNEP Theater tries to do just that with a production conceived by Jen Ellison as a writing exercise several years ago. The collaborative piece directed by Don Hall follows in the footsteps of similar endeavors – John Musto ’s 2007 opera, “Later the Same Evening,” used five Hopper paintings as his foundation. Donna McRae ’s 2005 film “The Usherette” spun a story from Hopper’s “New York Movie.”

WNEP puts a jazz score behind the paintings-brought-to-life, which reach a visual peak in the money shot that ends the piece by replicating one of Hopper’s most iconic images. That closer sends the audience out on a high note. Would that the roughly two hours leading up to it were as compelling.

The Hopper Project was written by Mary Jo Bolduc, Jen Ellison, Bob Fisher, Tom Flanigan, Don Hall, Merrie Greenfield, Joe Janes, Cholley Kuhaneck, and Rebecca Langguth; perhaps therein lies the core trouble. Playwriting by committee rarely results in a well-written play and for all its visual prowess, The Hopper Project is simply not well written. At the crux of the difficulty? A lack in both character development and connective tissue or dramatic arc among the characters. Watching the piece is akin to flicking through two hours of Network television, never stopping on the same channel for more than a few minutes. People and conversational fragments flit by in fits and starts, rattling about the surface without root or depth – and therefore without substance.

Where The Hopper Project differs from the mostly black hole of TV in its brilliant concept. But for all the gorgeous, provocative potential, that concept is done in by execution that’s far more meh than marvelous.

You’ll get no argument here that true wonders can come of making an audience wrestle with tantalizing loose ends and challenging ambiguity. Few things annoy us more than theater of the stupid – shows that condescend to hand-feed the audience every last detail while telegraphing precisely what the one should be feeling at any given moment. But The Hopper Project goes too far in the other direction. The stories play like unfinished two-dimensional sketches rather than textured, fully realized paintings. Context – both specific and universal – is minimal, and the result is something scattered and superficial rather than a united, meaningful whole.

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Overheard conversations one expects to take on deeper resonance never do, words and actions unfold more in vacuums than in fully realized world. And some things just don’t make any sense at all. As a movie theater audience slouches over popcorn (“New York Movie”), an usherette delivers a monologue to – the projector? Her sister? Herself? Why does the slapsticky, mugging business man (“Office at Night”) threaten to kill himself every day? What in the world is the deal with the man whose face burned off and why does he surface, face swathed in bandages, only during intermission? As a Phillip Marlowe wannabe rambles on about a pair of green shoes and (hello noir cliché) a jilted horn player, as a husband and wife bicker abrasively over the connotations of the word “clever,” as a pair of brunettes converse in fraught tones about a family drama, it becomes harder and harder to engage. It is indeed clever that the scenes copy paintings by Edward Hopper in a secular sort of Living Nativity pageant. But minus all-important context and characters, that cleverness takes on the feel of a gimmick.

Also troubling are the problematic sightlines presented by Heath Hays’ wide, shallow set. The construction is terrific in its boxy, two-story evocation of Hopper’s lines and shades. But if the view is obstructed, the artistry is wasted. From dead center in one of the best seats in the house, I couldn’t see any of the scenes that played on the far sides of the thing.

All that said, there are some winning performances in The Hopper Project. Dennis Frymire creates a largely silent cop whose workaday, shoe-leather weariness hasn’t extinguished an optimistic, romantic heart. Amanda Rountree is radiantly endearing as flirt whose winning smile is laced with the eminently relatable motivation of big city loneliness. If only they had more to work with.

Rating: ★★

 

“The (edward) Hopper Project” continues through Feb. 21 at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St. Tickets are $20, $15 students and seniors. For more information, go to www.dcatheater.org

The (edward) Hopper Project features Scott T. Barsotti, Mary Jo Bolduc, Regan Davis, Lauren Fisher, Dennis Frymire, Kevin Gladish, Lori Goss, Merrie Greenfield, Marsha Harman, Joe Janes, Andrew Jordan, Ian Knox. Patrick Kelly, Vinnie Lacey, Erin Orr, Amanda Rountree and Jacob A. Ware.

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January 16, 2010 | 2 Comments More

REVIEW: Killer Joe (Profiles Theatre)

Family Dysfunction Makes for a Good Dark Comedy

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Profiles Theatre presents:

Killer Joe

 

by Tracy Letts
directed by Rick Snyder
thru February 28th (ticket info)

Review by Keith Ecker

I don’t think I’m going to create a controversy by saying Tracy Letts is one of the biggest deals in Chicago theatre. The man won a Pulitzer and a Tony for August: Osage County, his play Superior Donuts recently finished its run on Broadway, and he currently can be seen at the Steppenwolf, where he is an ensemble member, playing the hotheaded Teach in David Mamet’s American Buffalo (our review ★★★★).  He’s like a Chicago theater god, both in skill and his omnipresence.

Johnson, Bigley, Cox vert With all this acclaim and success, Letts’ name has become a hot commodity. And for theatres, producing one of his plays is a pretty safe bet for financial return. That’s why Profiles Theatre is smart to stage Letts’ 1991 trailer-trash tragedy, Killer Joe.

Killer Joe is a direct predecessor of August: Osage County. Thematically both pieces share many commonalities, including themes of family dysfunction, sexual abuse and death. Comparisons can be drawn on a more surface level, too, with Killer Joe taking place just a few hours south of Osage County in a trailer home outside of Dallas.

The play centers on an absurdly stereotypical Texas family. Their trailer home is a mess with remnants of last night’s McDonald’s meal scattered about the kitchen table, a pack of Marlboro cigarettes by the kitchen sink and a dog incessantly snarling and barking on the front lawn.

The father, Ansel (Howie Johnson) is a rotund man who feels most comfortable moping around in his underwear and watching NASCAR. When his son, Chris (Kevin Bigley), enters in a panic, begging for money to pay off a debt to a criminal, Ansel acts surprisingly nonchalant.

Cox, Johnson, Bigley, vertical Unfortunately there is no one else in the trailer who can help Chris out of his bind. Ansel’s second wife Sharla (Somer Benson), a woman who sees nothing unsightly about wearing a thong with low-rise jeans, is more concerned with herself than her own husband. Meanwhile Chris’ little sister Dottie (Claire Wellin) is the epitome of fragility and naiveté.

Self-reliant and having an affinity for schemes, Chris comes up with a plan to hire someone to kill his birth mother, a wretchedly abusive woman who has an insurance policy on her head for $50,000.

Enter Killer Joe Cooper (Darrell Cox), one part Dallas cop and one part hired killer. Joe is the quintessential man in black. He has a booming voice and intimidating, penetrating eyes. And although his price may be steep, he always guaranties to get the job done. Just don’t ask too many questions.

The play is an engaging tale that plays out like a redneck soap opera or a trailer park Shakespearean tragedy. Still, at times the characters can come across as one-dimensional. Ansel is a big dumb idiot; Chris is a hotheaded rebel and Sharla is a skank. Dottie, who takes on the role of the sacrificial virgin, is the one character that undergoes dramatic change throughout the course of the play. Somewhat of a dark comedy, when the humor hits, it’s tragically funny. But there’s a lot of grave seriousness too, including some uncomfortable but well staged scenes involving sex and violence.

Cox does a good job playing Joe’s multiple facets, from southern gent to cold-blooded killer. His performance makes it that much more shocking when Joe tosses aside his southern hospitality to reveal the psychopath that lies beneath. However, the younger actors, Bigley and Wellin, seemed to struggle reaching emotional depth. Bigley plays angry and frustrated well, but he seems to be stuck on a single gear. The same can be said for Wellin, except replace angry and frustrated with melancholy and aloof.

killer-joeSteppenwolf ensemble member Rick Snyder’s direction is magnificent. The theater is a small space flanked by the audience on either side. Cramming five actors into one scene is no easy task. But even in the most action-intense segments, the stage never seems overcrowded. In addition, scenes of violence and sexual abuse are not treated as gratuitous, but rather are staged in a manner that speaks to the core of the characters.

Killer Joe isn’t Letts’ most significant contribution to theatre. But it’s an entertaining play. Although not without a few flaws, Profiles Theatre’s production succeeds in adroitly transporting the audience to a tiny Texas trailer filled with family dysfunction.

 

Rating: ★★★½

Additional review: Chicago Examiner

January 15, 2010 | 10 Comments More