Review: Black Watch (National Theatre of Scotland)

  
  

An intense, poignant examination of harsh reality of war

  
  

Stuart Martin (Nabsy) in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

  
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre and National Theatre of Scotland present
   
Black Watch
  
Written by Gregory Burke
Directed by John Tiffany
at Broadway Armory, 5917 N. Broadway (map)
through April 10  | 
tickets: $38-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Theater and war are two of humanity’s oldest institutions, but rarely do the two come together with as much emotional force as playwright Gregory Burke’s Black Watch. In the gym of the Broadway Armory, the soldiers of Scotland’s senior infantry regiment Black Watch relive their time in Iraq as a writer interviews them about their experiences in the Middle East. Probing the emotional and mental effects of war on the soldiers, Burke’s script is a deeply powerful look at the history of the Scottish regiment, and captures all the tension, danger, and ennui of their recent campaign in Iraq. Enemy combat is rarely seen, with the play focusing on the conflicts amongst the troops and within the soldiers’ minds, creating a brutally honest portrayal of the horrors of war. Incorporating music, movement, and video, director John Tiffany creates a visceral, multi-sensory experience that will shake audience members to their core, and not just because of the booming sound system. Black Watch is the type of play that shows the transcendent, transformative power of theater, and kudos to Chicago Shakespeare for bringing this play to our city.

Scott Fletcher (Kenzie) and Jamie Quinn (Fraz) in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.Black Watch begins with six soldiers awaiting the arrival of a female writer in a pub, disappointed to learn that they will be interviewed by a male writer (Paul Higgins), who becomes the target of their especially harsh brand of derogatory humor. Once the men settle down, they begin to share their memories, switching into their army fatigues and Tam o’Shanters with the characteristic red hackle as the play moves from the bar to the battlefield. Beyond showing the day-to-day trials of the division, Burke provides political and historical context throughout the play, and gives the play an epic scope that still retains a profoundly human element in the script.

The war in Iraq remains a hot-button issue in the U.S., and a press conference between two conflicting politicians is a familiar sight to anyone that watched the presidential debates of the 2004 and 2008 elections. Despite the Scottish dialects and setting, it is easy to relate to Burke’s script, and that connection is what makes Black Watch such a powerful production. The history of the Black Watch regiment is shown through a fantastic sequence where Private Cammy (Jack Lowden) is stripped down and outfitted in the various uniforms of the regiment as he describes their past. The flawless execution of the technically difficult scene is representative of the production as a whole. Lowden is flipped, twisted, and turned by his colleagues as they dress him in the black kilt of the original Black Watch, then continue to strip and redress him until he is wearing the contemporary uniform. Their precision and speed is impressive, and by the end of the scene Lowden has given the most visually dynamic history lesson I’ve ever had the experience of sitting through.

Black Watch doesn’t follow a traditional plot structure, but rather gives short, concentrated looks at the soldiers’ Iraq experiences that are broken up by abstract movement sequences that build on the thematic themes of the piece. The soldiers’ opinions of American soldiers, suicide terrorism, and the reasons they fight (porn and petrol, of course) are depicted with truth and humor, with Burke especially succeeding in bringing the latter to the war-heightened drama. This is a very funny play, and the comedy is often offensive and crude, but these are soldiers on the front lines in the Middle East. Any chance to see them smile is appreciated. The men tell jokes, fantasize about the take-out they’ll eat when they get home, and read half-paperbacks of “Laurence of Arabia”, all to make the desert bearable. The older men of the unit, Officer (Ian Pirie) and Sergeant (Higgins), don’t share their subordinates’ naïve ability to find joy in the bleak environment, and they serve as the catalysts for the production’s movement sequences, which reveal the emotional undercurrents of the daily routines.

Cameron Barnes (Macca) in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

In the play’s most powerful moment, after Officer recites an e-mail sent to his wife, a soldier enters, sorting through a stack of envelopes, looking for the one addressed to him. As he opens the letter, he stops, and another soldier enters, takes the stack, and repeats. One by one each member of Black Watch finds the letter addressed to him, stops, reads, and then begins an intricate movement cycle that is full of delicate affection but teeming with a sad sense of longing. It must be seen to truly feel its emotional power, but the image of the ten men, built up as pillars of masculinity up to this point, engaging in a shared moment of tender unity is hauntingly beautiful, especially when some of them will never see the faces belonging to those letters again. Associate director of movement Steven Hoggett incorporates elements of modern dance to make this scene especially gentle, and he later combines dance with fight choreography to portray a set of emotions on the complete opposite end of the spectrum.

When a fight breaks out between Private Granty (Richard Rankin) and new recruit Kenzie (Scott Fletcher) in the back of the wagon, Sergeant has the two settle their dispute in a ten second brawl. The clock counts down on the video screens, hitting Paul Higgins (Writer/Sergeant) in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.zero but restarting as the fighting continues, spreading through the other soldiers of the regiment like a virus. The choreography is extremely physical and the actors perform impeccably, building in intensity until the clock finally strikes blood red, an ominous warning of tragedy to come. After this point the soldiers no longer wear street clothes when speaking to Writer, and their army uniforms blur the lines of past and present. These are the moments when the PTSD comes out, when the violent outbursts and crippling depression happen. These are the symptoms of the disease called war, and, as Officer says, “For some of us, it’s in the blood.”

Black Watch ends with the soldiers marching in a parade of regimental solidarity backed by thunderous drums and bagpipes, and with the intense echo of the Broadway Armory, the volume reaches rock concert levels. As the music grows louder they march across the stage, helping any fallen men back to their feet, always returning to two lines of five soldier arms-width apart,. Their exactness in formation makes physical the strong emotional bonds built over the course of the play, and the roar of the music vibrates through the floor and into the crowd. The pride of the troop is now the pride of an audience, a brotherhood of theatergoers united by one magnificent production.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Cast of the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of Black Watch, presented by Chicago Shakespeare Theater at the Broadway Armory now through April 10, 2011. Photo by Manuel Harlan.

All photos by Manuel Harlan

        
        
April 2, 2011 | 1 Comment More

Review: Man from Nebraska (Redtwist Theatre)

  
  

Broad collection of fervent scenes doesn’t quite make a whole

  
  

Michael Sherwin (Rev. Todd), Sam Perry (Bud)

  
Redtwist Theatre presents
  
Man From Nebraska
 
Written by Tracy Letts 
Directed by Andrew Jessop
at Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Redtwist Theatre has pulled off wonders within the confines of its black box theater space, such as morphing into a cheerfully bland New York hotel lobby with Lobby Hero (our review ★★★½) or, for their production of The Pillowman (review ★★), a claustrophobic interrogation room adjoined by macabre mini-theaters at both ends. But they may have bit off more than they can chew staging Tracy Letts’ 2003 play Man From Nebraska. Stephen H. Carmody’s set design does all it can with movable stages that serve for car and hotel scenes; Christopher Burpee’s lighting design can be impressively transformative at the right moments; Andrew Jessop’s video provides sly and suggestive white noise when the television becomes an extra character in a scene. Still, the play’s stop-and-start shifts are hell for any director to draw a cohesive arc from. Though Jessop’s direction Adrian Snow (Tamyra), Andrew J. Pond (Harry), Chuck Spencer (Ken)crafts gorgeous, singular jewels with each theatrical moment, it cannot ameliorate the overriding fragmentary nature of Letts’ writing, which seems more relevant for the screen than the stage.

Only one abiding element comes close to binding the production—Chuck Spencer’s performance, authentic to the bones, as Ken Carpenter, a man who awakens in the middle of the night to question everything he once held true. Jan Ellen Graves provides quiet backup as Ken’s sorely tested helpmeet, Nancy, but the show remains Spencer’s in every way. One could consider his portrayal of Ken as the bookend to his 2009 triumph as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at Raven Theatre (review). He seems born to play the quintessential life of quiet desperation.

The opening scenes do everything to depict Ken and Nancy’s somnambulant routines and corn-fed complacency, right down to silently shared dinners over chicken-fried steaks and mashed potatoes. But then Ken’s midnight crisis of faith hits hard and stands in abrupt, violent contrast to everything that’s gone before. Ken, Baptist born and raised, realizes to his horror that he does not believe in God–Spenser successfully sells every raw moment of Ken’s lifetime of belief pulled out from underneath him.

The rest of the play Ken searches for what he truly believes in; how various people respond to his earnest and heartfelt quest eventually reflects more on them than the protagonist. Small theatrical moments shine with humor, veracity, warm simplicity, yet sometimes we are never really far from a sharp Lettsian edge. Chuck Spencer (Ken), Marssie Mencotti (Cammie)Reverend Todd (Michael Sherwin) proves to be as cheerfully vapid and materialistic a clergyman as Satan could ever send to test the faithful, yet it is on his recommendation that Ken take a vacation that shapes his quest. Equally, daughter Ashley (Julie Dahlinger) seems too caught up in the things of this world to ever understand her father’s driven personal inquiry. In worldly company, Ken seems like an oddity—the guy who cares too much about spiritual matters that everyone else has let go of long ago.

Spencer is up to giving a performance that makes Ken more than an accidental tourist in the realms of moral ambiguity. Unfortunately, the script itself doesn’t plumb the depths of Ken’s emotional or spiritual quest but leaves a lot of it inchoate. Furthermore, the play’s fragmentary nature makes it difficult to tie in Ken’s search for truth with what is going on with Nancy at home. So many actors give strong and mature performances, it’s a shame that the whole struggles to gel. It’s worth it just to go and view the production as an assortment of excellent scenes in the hands of sure and capable craftsmen. Certainly, Ken and Nancy’s powerful reunion will stays long after the show is over. But, all in all, we have to accept Man From Nebraska as a lesser work of Chicago’s currently most successful playwright.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
     
  

Man From Nebraska continues through April 24th at the Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25 on Thursdays, $27 on Fridays and Sundays, and $30 on Saturdays, and can be bought online or by calling 773-728-7529.  Reserve seats by e-mailing reserve@redtwist.org.

Michael Sherwin (Rev. Todd), Jan Ellen Graves (Nancy), Chuck Spencer (Ken)

Jane deLaubenfels (Pat), Chuck Spencer (Ken) Chuck Spencer (Ken), Jan Ellen Graves (Nancy)
  
April 2, 2011 | 0 Comments More

Review: Star Witness (House Theatre)

  
  

When bad scripts happen to talented people

  
  

Mary Redmon, Briana DeGiulio

      
The House Theatre presents
  
Star Witness
  
Written by Joe Meno
Directed by
Sean Graney
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 7  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Stories about young women that escape their mundane existences by embarking on fantastic journeys are fairly common in pop culture. Alice fell down the rabbit hole, Dorothy flew over the rainbow, and just this past weekend, the ladies of Sucker Punch retreated into videogame cut-scenes as an alternative to their imprisonment in an asylum. In Star Witness, the disappearance of a little girl sends Shelley (Briana De Giulio) on a surreal journey that teaches her to appreciate the world around her, no matter how dull it may be. Sean Graney directs a talented cast of actors, but Joe Meno’s script is a rushed, unfinished mystery that fails to captivate, with the characters never given a real chance to develop as the story races to its finish.

Briana DeGiulio, Chris MathewsThe play begins with kindergarten teacher Hazel (Mary Redmon) telling the audience a story about a wily fox and a huntsman as she prepares for a traditional evening of Chinese food, board games, and listening to a police scanner with Shelley. Hazel returns to the story throughout the show, but its connection to the mystery is strained, and slows down the momentum of the present action. After discovering the death of her bird Mr. Peepers and hearing a report of an 1126 – abandoned bicycle – on the police scanner, Hazel is in a volatile mood when Shelley comes home from work. Entering in a her powder blue waitress uniform (one of the many visual and thematic cues taken from “The Wizard of Oz”), Shelley talks about the troublesome day at work for her boyfriend Wayne (Chris Matthews) and herself, before discovering Mr. Peepers and being thrown into the same emotional chaos as her foster grandmother.

As more news comes in over the scanner, Hazel becomes infuriated with God, shouting and throwing down her Bible in rage at the prospect of young Jamie Mae being hurt, while Shelley begins to see an opportunity for the adventure she’d always wanted to have. As various members of the town enter their home, the audience is thrown a lot of exposition, and the hectic pace of the first act doesn’t give the characters much room to breathe. De Giulio and Redmon are given big dramatic moments that allow them to show off their acting chops, but the transitions within the scenes need to be much stronger. It seems as though Meno isn’t quite sure what kind of story he wants to tell. There’s not enough actual detective work to make it feel like a fully realized mystery, and the relationship aspects of the script aren’t developed well enough for it to stand alone as a story about a girl reconnecting with her absent mother by learning to value her small town existence.

Shelley’s monologue about her childhood wish to find a dead body disturbs because of De Giulio’s hauntingly raw delivery, but the moment feels sudden, and slightly inappropriate in the context of the scene. When Wayne comes over and tells Shelley that he plans on taking a job in Indiana, their relationship lacks appropriate definition for the moment to have a strong emotional resonance. It all generally moves much too fast, and when a pair of gym shoes Ghostare found with blood on them (red shoes are a motif throughout), Shelley hops on her bike and begins her journey to find Jamie Mae, signaling the end of act one before it really gets a chance to take off.

The first act of Star Witness takes place in the Chopin Theatre’s downstairs lobby, transforming the space into Hazel’s living room in an unorthodox move by Graney and set designer Lee Keenan. Once Shelley hops on her bike, the door to the main theater opens, revealing an ominous forest that serves as the setting for act two. It’s an ingenious way of involving the audience in a way that the script fails to do, literally forcing them to move into the world of the play. In the second act, Shelley encounters three men, with each one representing different relationships in Shelley’s life. The one-handed toy factory worker Bob Wyatt (Gary Simmers) is a connection to her mother, the flirty, sea monster costume clad Junior (Matthews) symbolizes her romantic relationships, and the creepy baby-mask wearing Norris helps Shelley appreciate her hometown.

The second act suffers from the same problems as the first, but there are some glimpses of what Star Witness could be with some reworking and polish, particularly the scene between Shelley and Junior. De Giulio and Matthews have great chemistry and their flirting is adorable, with Meno slowing down the pace and giving them an opportunity to explore their relationship. As cute as the scene is, though, it’s still a diversion from the main mystery, and Meno’s hectic pacing returns once Junior exits as the play sprints to its conclusion. The story is resolved with almost no investigation on Shelley’s part, which makes the preceding events feel rather pointless, and the rushed conclusion ends up having the same gravitas as a still shot of characters high-fiving at the end of a TV sitcom.

There is potential in Meno’s script, but Star Witness ultimately feels like a rough draft. The idea of a small-town murder mystery influenced byThe Wizard of Oz” is a fascinating one, and while the play does a passable job with the theme of Shelley wanting something fantastic in her life, the rest of the Oz references need to be more fully realized if they’re to be anything more than cosmetic. Thankfully, Graney knows how to get strong performances out of his actors, and his ensemble ultimately saves the show from disaster. In less capable hands, Star Witness would be dead on arrival.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
      
  

Mary Redmon, Gary Simmers, Briana DeGiulio

Star Witness continues at the Chopin Theatre (1543 W. Division) through May 7th, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $25, and can be purchased online or by calling 773-769-3832. More information is available at www.thehousetheatre.com

All photos by Michael Brosilow

           
           
April 1, 2011 | 0 Comments More

Review: Ephemera (Polarity Ensemble Theatre)

  
  

The last lost in space cadets

  
  

Kaelan Strouse and Kim Boler - Ephemera

  
Polarity Ensemble Theatre presents
  
Ephemera
  
Written by Bryce Wissel
Directed by Laura Sturm
at Josephinum Academy, 1500 N. Bell (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $19  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

You have to hand it to Polarity Ensemble Theatre’s latest production, a daffy space opera called Ephemera. It wings its charming way through its almost stream-of-consciousness universe while, at the same time, interjecting notes of wisdom and flashes of sobering reality. Not so sobering that it subverts its comic balance—playwright Bryce Wissel challenges his characters but never allows them to sink into maudlin self-pity or self-absorption. Directed by Laura Sturm, Ephemera does that delicate dance of riffing on well-worn and outlandish tropes from sci-fi, creates a few new ones on its own, while nodding to the obvious drawbacks of a life suspended in space. The crew of orbital space station Ephemera shows all the wear and tear of living the most ungrounded of existences but that hardly keeps them from playing out all their individual idiosyncrasies, even to the living end.

Kim Boler and Jonas Gray - EphemeraPresented in “installments” by greeter Androids 1 and 2 (Hilary Holbrook and Sarah Grant), the story begins with Ephemera’s crew discovering a talking monkey trapped in its airlock. The monkey, Davy (played with superb body language by Charley Jordan) was the original test monkey sent into space during NASA’s early exploration days. Perhaps–and only perhaps–decades of exposure to interstellar radiation have speeded his evolution to the point where he can hold affable conversation, jovially drink down the station’s alcohol and hit on Colonel Kate McBride (Kim Boler). True to sci-fi/action thriller formula, Kate’s the only female on board–so, of course, Davy’s not Kate’s only suitor. Manuel (Kaelan Strouse), an android who was probably weaned on Telemundo programming, exerts all his exuberant Latin charm to woo her–not to mention showboat the audience.

As hotly pursued as Kate is, it’s through her we discover the darker aspects of Ephemera’s nut-house environment—they have been on board, orbiting Earth, for who knows how long or for what purpose. There’s been no communication from Earth and they all have no memory of any time before they were there. “I don’t even know if we came here willingly,” she plaintively tells Davy. It quickly becomes clear that the crew’s behavior reflects the time-wasting, random goofiness of people without direction or relief from meaningless routine. “Everyone I know has heard all of my jokes,” complains Colonel James Bowie (Jonas Grey). The only one having fun with his role seems to be Commander William B. Travis (played with absurdist brilliance by Bob Wilson) and mostly because his role on the station seems to have been fabricated out of thin air.

      
     Kim Boler, Jonas Grey, Charley Jordan, Kaelan Strouse, Bob Wilson, Sarah Grant and Hilary Holbrook - Ephemera Charles Jordan and Kim Boler - Ephemera
Jonas Grey, Kaelan Strouse, Kim Boler, Charles Jordan - Ephemera Kaelan Strouse in 'Ephemera'

Even the comedy’s non-linear story structure, replete with dropped-in asides from the characters, instills repetitive and nonsensical time loops in the action. Wissel’s comedy matches the flukiness of Douglas Adams’ or even Tom Robbins’ novels. At the heart of its highly randomized exposition is a workplace comedy, where work is very definitely not the issue but getting along with the quirks of one’s co-workers is. For the most part, the non-linear storytelling is very successful—only in the second act does it begin to wear itself out as a MacGuffin. However, Sturm’s cast is spot-on in pace, timing and delivery—a factor made all the more exacting by the production’s technical elements. Plus, artist lewis lains’ set design and further art installations create a great space for the cast’s gentle and gracious finale that brings the show home clean, clear and truthful. If a little more editing could be employed, Ephemera just might takes its place in the stars among its illustrious space comedy forebears.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Jonas Gray, Charles Jordan, Kim Bolder

Ephemera continues through May 1st at Josephinum Academy, 1500 N. Bell (map), with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m., and Sunday at 3:00 p.m. Tickets are $19, and can be purchased online. More info at www.pettheatre.com.

Extra Credit:

     
March 31, 2011 | 0 Comments More

Review: The Warriors (The New Colony)

     
     

Survivor story speaks from the heart, but the message Is muddled

  
  

Mary Hollis Inboden - Anne Peterson - New Colony

  
The New Colony presents
  
The Warriors
  
Conceived by Mary Hollis Inboden
Written by Evan Linder
Directed by Benno Nelson
at Second Stage Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

I cannot possibly begin to fathom the experience that Mary Hollis Inboden has lived through. The New Colony company member and the conceiver of its new production, The Warriors, was a student at Westside Middle School in 1998 when two students opened fire on their peers. When the carnage had ended, five people, including Mary’s best friend, were killed.

An incident as horrific as the Jonesboro Massacre—as the press dubbed it—sticks with you, sending shockwaves throughout the rest of your life. Although most of us are not survivors of school shootings, we do eventually suffer a life-changing tragedy that stamps itself on our psyches. And with each individual, it affects him or her differently.

Wes Needham, Mary Hollis Inboden - Anne PetersonThat is what The Warriors attempts to explore, the notion that a shared horrific experience affects the lives of those involved in different ways. We do not witness the actions of that day, but we do watch the fallout.

The play begins in the present day with Mary, as herself, on a date with Jeff (Wes Needham). Jeff mentions that he heard Mary’s NPR interview, the one where she is speaking as a school shooting survivor. In the interview, she advises the students at Virginia Tech to band together and collectively cope with their pain. Mary tells Jeff that because she abandoned her Westside peers, she feels her advice was disingenuous.

Mary decides to send an e-mail to her old student body, informing them she wants to discuss the shooting. And so she returns to Jonesboro where she interacts with several old friends, each of whom has dealt with the weight of remembering in a unique way.

Mary Hollis Inboden’s performance is a testament to how much passion she has for the material and compassion she has for the other survivors. Playing yourself as others may see you takes courage, vulnerability and humility. I also commend Mary on her drive to get The Warriors on stage. So many would rather suppress the darkness Sarah Gitenstein, Michael Peters and Mary Hollis Inbodenin their lives. But Mary understands that the past is not your choice, and it is an inseparable part of you, a part that as an artist must be explored and shared.

However, this piece would have been significantly more powerful had it been scaled down to either a one-woman show or a series of monologues. Instead, the characters busily interact with each other, which diminishes the audience’s ability to connect with them and vice versa.

In addition, this kind of personal piece doesn’t seem conducive to The New Colony’s process. Instead of relying on a single playwright, the theatre company collaboratively creates its productions. I’m not clear on how a group of individuals who did not live through the experience and cannot speak for Mary’s point of view can adequately contribute to the piece. Furthermore, by having them contribute, the lines between reality and dramatization begin to blur. And that undercuts some of the play’s intensity.

If we’re going to plunge into personal tragedy, I want as much vulnerability on stage as possible. And although Mary lays her heart on the line, the other characters lack a certain genuineness. It’s not about the acting. It’s about the way the story is told. And I think Mary can tell this tale better herself.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

(L to R)  Whit Nelson, Nicole Pellegrino, Michael Peters, Sarah Gitenstein, Wes Needham, Mary Hollis Inboden

The Warriors runs March 17 – April 17 at the Second Stage Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield Ave. Opening/Press night is Sunday, March 20 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $25 and are now on sale. The production runs Thursdays – Sundays at 7:30 p.m. Tickets may be purchased at 773.413.0TNC (0862) or thenewcolony.org.

  
  
March 28, 2011 | 0 Comments More

Review: All in Love Is Fair (Black Ensemble Theater)

  
  

All is fair in Love, Illinois

  
  

All In Love Is Fair - Jenny Lamb and Dwight Neal - Black Ensemble Theatre

  
Black Ensemble Theater presents
  
All in Love Is Fair
  
Written and Directed by Jackie Taylor
at Beacon Street Theater, 4520 N. Beacon (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $40-$48  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Somewhere near the southern tip of the state, the fictitious Illinois town of Love is crammed with couples in and out of love, straight and (closeted) gay, mixed race and size, seasoned and raw. One is celebrating a 50thanniversary, another is breaking up just after the honeymoon, and another reconnects after a three-month separation. What sets such familiar folks apart in Jackie Taylor’s diverting new 150-minute musical All in Love Is Fair is the score by Luther Vandross: In moments of crisis or ardor they burst out in ballads that amount to emotional meltdowns as naturally as they fight, romance, and reconcile.

All In Love Is Fair - Katrina Miller and Lyle Miller - Black Ensemble TheatreTaylor’s song-setting script contrasts these generic couples. But the selections, by far the best excuse for the generic plot lines, connects them, wonderfully. As always, Taylor can find talent and, despite the overmiking that disguises the great chops, lungs, and pizzazz of this 13-member ensemble, this is a showcase to make them stars. Robert Reddrick’s musical direction and arrangements are chartbusting right.

Playing the coy hostess as she narrates the soapy stories, Katrina V. Miller also digs deep into “The Way We Were.” Rhonda Preston, as a 68-year-old marriage survivor, puts a lifetime of devotion into “You Make Me Feel Like A Natural Woman,” while, as her adoring husband, Zachary Boyd testifies to heaven on the “Power of Love” and in “So Many Ways.” Donald Barnes teaches us to “Wait For Love,” Lawrence Williams is a ladykiller with his sultry “For the Good Times,” and Daryl Brooks pleads, with contagious fervor, that he “Don’t Want To Be A Fool.”

Carrie (her full name) knocks the soul in and out of “When You Tell Me That You Love Me,” her love offering echoed by the searing lamentation of Dawn Bless Comer’s “Fools Fall In Love.” Aerial Williams reinvents all the crushing infatuation of “First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Jenny Lamb takes on “All The Man I Need,” as if introducing it to the world fully fresh.

Bringing down the house is belting phenom Vasily Deris whose “Never Too Much” and “Dance With My Father” had the audience forming a fan club on the spot. As they celebrate their good times at the town’s well-named Diversity Club, the troupe come together triumphantly in the raucous “Bad Boy Having a Party” and Taylor’s own signature creation “Love, Illinois.”

If that sounds like a command as well as place, this is the musical to mean it.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  
All In Love Is Fair - Dawn Mitchell - Black Ensemble Theatre All In Love Is Fair - Katrina Miller and Lyle Miller All In Love Is Fair - Vasily Deris
All In Love Is Fair - Lawrence Williams All In Love Is Fair - Caririe and Vasily Deris All In Love Is Fair - Aeriel Williams and Lawrence Williams

Performances for All In Love Is Fair are Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 3:00 p.m.  Tickets are $45 on Fridays and $47.50 on Saturdays and Sundays. Discounts are available for students, seniors, and groups. Tickets, including group tickets, are available by calling the Black Ensemble Theater Box Office at773-769-4451, or visiting www.ticketmaster.com.  All performances take place at the Black Ensemble Theater, 4520 N. Beacon Street.

     
     
March 27, 2011 | 0 Comments More

Review: Made in Puerto Rico (Mike Oquendo Events)

      
     

A hilarious night of discovering the Puerto Rican in us all

  
  

'Made in Puerto Rico'--Elizardi Castro (audience in background)

  
Mike Oquendo Events presents
   
Made in Puerto Rico
  
Written and Directed by Elizardi Castro
at Chicago Center for the Performing Arts
777 N. Green Street, Chicago (map)
thru May 1  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by S.E. Antrim

You don’t have to be “Made in Puerto Rico” to appreciate Elizardi Castro’s super high-energy one man show brought to Chicago audiences by Mike Oquendo Events at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. It might help to know a little Spanish or Spanglish, but if you don’t, the laugh-out-loud 10 word “User’s Guide to Made in Puerto Rico” will quickly get you up to speed with most of what you’ll want to know before the show. After the little tutorial for those of us from Allá ‘fuera (any part of the world that is not Puerto Rico) we’re totally psyched to learn more about what it means to be Puerto Rican and American. It’s a whole lot funnier than I would have imagined—at least when viewed through Castro’s lens. The portion of the sold-out crowd that was clearly relating to the experience of growing up Puerto Rican and American confirmed loudly and proudly that this comedian was speaking both to and for them.

Elizardi Castro, in his self-written one-man show: 'Made in Puerto Rico'.Through masterful storytelling and a brilliant gift for becoming the characters Castro takes the audience with him to meet the entire family. Early in the performance Castro introduces us to Grandpa Santos, stern but loving, well-intentioned and clearly paranoid. Abuelito Santos lectures the petulant teenage Elizardi on the hidden dangers of going downtown, going to the beach and even just sitting quietly on the porch. As I, perhaps a bit self-consciously, laughed along with the rest of the audience, I had a nagging feeling that I might actually be Grandpa Santos. And that’s exactly why Castro’s Puerto Rican-influenced comedy is such a hit, regardless of ethnicity or background. We all recognize ourselves and people we know. Sure, maybe you weren’t dodging chancletas as a kid, but if you didn’t get the occasional well-placed whack with a sandal or house slipper, you have probably met the business end of a hairbrush or a spatula at least once when you misbehaved. You’ve no doubt experienced the cool deception of a loving mother who told you, “We’ll only stay at old aunt so-and-so’s house for a few minutes.” We watch poor little Elizardi writhe in the agony that only a child trapped among boring old adults can experience. His pain is our pain as we remember, but still we laugh. We’ve all been there.

If Castro’s comedy is such a hit because we can all relate to certain elements it’s also appealing because as he tells the audience repeatedly “we’re different”. His quirky characters show us how Puerto Ricans are different. The boisterous holiday festivities of the Boricua as compared to the “uptight and white” more sedate observation of the Christmas season has everyone laughing and nodding their heads in agreement. The audience also finds itself transported to dance clubs where the “show-off” dances to salsa, merengue, bomba and reggaeton. Mr. Castro’s dance moves are as impressive as they are comical and he may have a great career ahead of him as a boy band member. He did grow up listening to Menudo, after all. Puerto Rican flag worship was an activity that I was vaguely aware of thanks to a gentleman whom I can identify only as Super Rico. He wore a red mask and the flag like a cape. It seemed a rather unique ensemble to me at the time. Apparently that’s not particularly unusual attire. You learn something new every day.

Elizardi Castro, born in Puerto Rico and raised in New York, had a pretty good gig as a criminal defense attorney before he turned to comedy, but anyone who sees Made in Puerto Rico will understand quickly why he gave up law for the stage—you can’t merengue in a courtroom! Well, maybe you can in Puerto Rico. Castro makes a commitment to keeping it clean, so go ahead grab Abuelita and Bobo and head on over to the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts. You’ll be glad you did!

  
  
Rating: ★★★
    
  

Elizardi Castro, in his self-written one-man show: 'Made in Puerto Rico'.

Made in Puerto Rico continues at the Chicago Center for the Performing Arts through May 1st, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 5pm.  Tickets are $20, and can be purchased online or by calling (312) 733-6000.

  
  
March 27, 2011 | 2 Comments More

Review: Aida (Drury Lane Theatre)

  
  

A solid production of flawed Elton John/Tim Rice musical

  
  

Jared Zirilli and Stephanie Umoh star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo by Brett Beiner.

  
Drury Lane Theatre presents
   
Aida
  
Music by Elton John, Lyrics by Tim Rice
Book by Linda Woolverton, with R. Falls and D. H. Hwang
Directed and Choreographed by Jim Corti
at Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through May 29  |  tickets: $35-$46  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

When Egyptian captain Radames (Jared Zirilli) captures the beautiful Nubian princess Aida (Stephanie Umoh), the two fall in love despite the war between their countries, and are forced to choose between their political duties and their affections for each other. Elton John and Tim Rice adapt Verdi’s classic opera Aida through the lens of a late ‘90s Disney animated feature, candy-coating the tragic tale of two star-crossed lovers with family-friendly pop-rock that occasionally detracts from the emotional life of the story. Yet despite the musical’s problems, Jim Corti directs a sharp production with a cast of strong singers and dancers that perform the material cleanly, but could use some more passion. Using the influence of ancient Egyptian art, Corti creates images on stage through the actors posing and positioning in profile, like this painting:

actient Egyptian wall painting

While it’s a nice effect, it’s also representative of the production’s largest problem: stiffness that prevents the beauty of the music from truly taking off. The actors perform the music with precision, but there are times when it feels like they’re holding back, which could partly be because of the imbalanced musical material.

The ballads have a similar emotional resonance as John/Rice’s Lion King work, but whereas that musical has a unifying musical sound, Aida’s score essentially becomes a musical journey through the different stages of Elton John’s musical career. Tim Rice pushes the plot with his lyrics, but there are times when John’s score seems mismatched with the action on stage, mostly during the first act. The show’s fist number is sung by Amneris (Erin Mosher), the daughter of the Pharoah AIDA--Grant Thomas, Monique Haley, Stephanie Umoh, Jared Zirilli(Nicholas Foster) and Radames’ arranged bride, and Mosher’s powerful voice is pitch-perfect, with her dignified presence befitting the character’s initial introduction as the story’s narrator. Then the show transitions into the Rent-lite “Fortune Favors The Brave” as Ramades belts over inspirational power chords while Nubian women are pillaged in the background. It’s great music for a lease-burning, but not so much for an act of war. It gets worse when Radames’ father Zoser (Darren Matthias) reveals his plot to usurp the Pharoah’s throne in “Another Pyramid,” a groan-inducing reggae meets Tumbleweed Connection number that turns into a goofy dance fight. Thankfully, that’s the worst number in the show and happens early, but it’s also not the best way to start a musical.

As the musical progresses, it becomes clear that Elton John’s music shows the differences between Egypt in Nubia through the styling of their songs. Egyptians have the classic rock ‘n roll of John’s early years, while the Nubians utilize the gospel-tribal fusion of The Lion King, but there’s still a strong disconnect between numbers. “My Strongest Suit,” where Amneris does her best Tina Turner impression, and “The Gods Love Nubia,” a stirring tribute by a downtrodden Nubian people – they don’t sound like they belong in the same show. This is mostly a problem in the first act, and as the two groups begin to combine in act two, the music gains a stronger focus.

     
Stephanie Umoh and Jared Zirilli star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. L to R-- Jarrett Kelly, Grant Thomas, Branden Springman, Jaquez Sims, Peter Vandivier, Michael Glazer, Todd Rhoades, and Stephane Duret star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA, at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.
Jarrett Kelly, Peter Vandivier, Brandon Springman, Darren Matthias, Michael Glazer and Todd Rhoades in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Erin Mosher in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.

The two female leads both showcase stunning vocals, but while their singing is wonderfully expressive, they suffer from that aforementioned stiffness, particularly Umoh in the title role. Aida is a free spirit that has always felt confined, and she is given the opportunity to escape through song, yet Umoh is locked in place when she sings. She relies on her voice to do the heavy lifting, and despite being a powerful instrument, the image she portrays physically doesn’t match up. This prevents the chemistry between Ramades and Aida from really exploding, as Zarilli is forced to give more without ever getting much in return. The cast proves that they’re skilled performers, but there’s a lack of freedom in their technique that translates as restraint, a dangerous flaw for a show like Aida that relies on spectacle.

Despite the production’s flaws, fans of Aida will find much to love about Drury Lane’s production. The music is well performed, with crisp staging and choreography from Corti, who incorporates tribal dance into the standard Broadway footwork. Like a lost Disney cartoon put on stage, Aida lacks the gravitas of the original opera, but the crowd-pleasing score turns the tragic story into a family-friendly rock musical sure to please fans of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Schwartz.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  
'Aida' group in white in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Stephanie Umoh and Jared Zirilli star in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.
James Earl Jones II stars in Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner. Monique Haley, Erin Mosher and Natalie Williams in a scene from Elton John and Tim Rice’s Tony Award-winning musical AIDA at Drury Lane Theatre Oakbrook Terrace. Photo credit: Brett Beiner.

All photos by Brett Beiner

     
     
March 26, 2011 | 0 Comments More