Review: Night and Her Stars (The Gift Theatre Company)

  
  

Thornton and his cast earn their ‘applause light’

  
  

Ray Shoemaker and Joe Mack in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.

   
The Gift Theatre presents
  
Night and Her Stars
  
Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by
Michael Patrick Thornton
at
Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map)
through April 24  | 
tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

The effect of television on human civilization has been up for debate since the first flickering blue light emitted into people’s homes. “What was life like before television?” is a question that is repeated in Richard Greenberg’s 1995 play, Night and Her Stars, revolving around the 1950’s quiz show scandal involving academic Charles Van Doren and the Q&A show, “21”, now running at The Gift Theatre, directed with mastery by artistic director, Michael Patrick Thornton.

The vast majority of the American population can hardly fathom an existence without television. As this number increases, the debate on the social implications of television withers, being replaced by greater evils of technology. Nevertheless, this tale of America’s tested faith in television, and The Gift’s production, succeeds in reveling in nostalgia whilst finding immediacy, resonance and heart in its characters and their flaws.

Lindsey Barlag (foreground) and Erika Schmidt in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.As Greenberg himself notes, this play “must not be mistaken for history.” It is in this vain that the Gift takes us back to a skewed cold war era consumer driven television world of the 1950’s. Set designer Adam Veness does a remarkable job of transforming the tinderbox storefront space into a gaudy haunting replica of the notorious game show, “Twenty One”, complete with an “Applause” lighted sign and a four-sided blue glowing orb of a television set.

The first act primarily follows the rise and fall of the knowledgeable Jewish contestant Herb Stempel (played by Raymond Shoemaker with pitch perfect desperation, optimism and hamartia). Stempel is discovered by game show producer Dan Enright (Danny Ahlfeld) after being pressured by sponsors and execs to bring brighter contestants onto the show to avoid dead silence and stammering. Ed Flynn gives an entertaining supporting performance as the Geritol sponsor pleading with Enright, “I have to appeal to geriatrics.” These demands lead to Enright feeding answers to an initially hesitant Stempel resulting in his reigning championship run.

Stempel’s ethnicity and lack of on-camera charisma aren’t quite what the show’s audience is looking for, as Keith Neagle delivers the powerfully cringing line, “I hate him like rabies!” In one of the highlights of the play, Shoemaker is brilliant as Stempel pleading for any other question than the one he is given to go down on during his fall. As Stempel begins to reveal the truth to the press, Enright plays it off as “Jewish self-hatred.”

Along comes the more “all-American” contestant Charles Van Doren (Jay Worthington) who descends from a long line of famed academics. Van Doren is fed answers to replace Stempel on the show. Worthington gives a complex and exciting performance. As Charlie, he conveys a man who is given everything at once, yet happiness eludes him.

Charlie Van Doren’ can be considered a symbol of television stardom, be it quiz shows or reality shows. He embodies short lived fame and a lack of touch with the real world. Contrasting another Charlie amidst a modern day TV scandal, Van Doren finally exclaims, “I don’t want to win anymore.” Van Doren’s confession is staged effectively by Thornton with a chorus of the Christian congress instantly forgiving his sins.

Branimira Ivanova’s costumes are scrumptious, with many raided directly from the “Mad Men” wardrobe department, giving us glimpses into a range of rising movements in the late 50’s during the American Chorus’ interludes. The pinstriped suit and polka-dotted tie Enright gives to Stempel for his television debut is a sure laugh each night. Lighting designer Scott Pillsbury creates impressive effects and moods with the small space including an emotional lighting storm and perfectly placed moments in which the audience becomes lit. Miles Polaski’s sound design balances nicely between the atmospheric and the expressive spectrums.

     
Keith Neagle, Aemilia Scott and Jay Worthington in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg. Aemilia Scott and Ray Shoemaker in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars', wirtten by Richard Greenberg.

While Shoemaker and Worthington carry the show, it is ultimately an ensemble production. Joe Mack may be the most perfect casting in his turn as the oblivious game show host Jack Berry. Thornton utilizes Greenberg’s American Chorus expertly, as these fine actors come into the light to play pivotal roles only to disappear into an ever watching amoeba. Katie Genualdi is charming and smart in her various appearances, especially at the top of the second act in an ad for cornflakes infused with caffeine. Erika Schmidt has a calm intensity as a reporter who finally brings Van Doren to the truth. Established Chicago actor Paul D’Addario, as the exec Al Freedman, is as powerful of a presence silent as he is during dialogue. Aemilia Scott, as Stempel’s wife, is fascinating in struggling with her doubts for her husband. Ahlfeld’s Enright occasionally has some pacing and timing issues that may get tighter during the run.

While Greenberg’s telling of this cautionary tale may not land quite as powerfully as a decade or two ago, it still stands the test of time as an historical account that has grown into legend. The heart and humanity of this play lies with a character I’ve yet to mention played with wonder and honesty by veteran actor Richard Henzel. Perhaps, do yourself a favor and save the reading of the program until after the show and be surprised by the final scene in which we finally see Van Doren in his natural setting.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Jay Worthington and Richard Henzel in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.

Night and Her Stars continues at The Gift Theatre through April 24th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm with Sunday matinees at 2:30. (no shows April 16 and 17). Running time is 2 hours, 25 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $25 (Sundays) and $30 (Thursday, Friday and Saturday). Industry and senior prices: $20 (Sundays only). For more info visit  thegifttheatre.org.

     
     
March 9, 2011 | 0 Comments More

Review: The Dream Journal of Doctor Jekyll (The Mammals)

  
  

Mammals’ dream journal struggles to maintain balance

  
  

Gabe Garza as Hyde, Sarah Scanlon as Eve - The Mammals - Dream Journal of Doctor Jekyll

   
The Mammals present
   
The Dream Journal of Doctor Jekyll
  
Written by Jason Adams, Scott Barsotti, Randall Colburn, Bob Fisher,
Reina Hardy, Warwick Johnson and Jeremy Menekseoglu
Directed by
Bob Fisher
at
Zoo Studio, 4001 N. Ravenswood Ste B-1 (map)
through April 2  |  tickets: $20  | 
more info

Reviewed by by Barry Eitel

In their The Dream Journal of Doctor Jekyll, The Mammals are quick to dismiss Robert Louis Stevenson, decrying his novel as a “penny dreadful.” Instead, at the onset of the play, our guide Professor Oliver Mastodon Peale says that we are about to get a taste of the real story. He claims that next to the titular doctor’s eviscerated body laid a book, half written in neat cursive, half written in near-illegible handwriting. This adaptation, as we’re led to believe, is actually a dramatization of that story. It’s a bold move; one that breathes life into the Victorian-era tale.

Gabe Garza as Hyde - Dream Journal of Doctor Jeckyll - The MammalsKnown for their exploration of the horrific and grotesque, Dr. Jekyll and his alter-ego Mr. Hyde provide ample fodder for the Mammals. However, the play can never decide whether it is a gothic descent into hell or a smartly-done spoof. In the end, the show becomes a victim of taking itself too seriously.

In lieu of actors, claims Peale (Jason Adams wrapped in a robe and marvelously fake moustache), he has hired sleepwalkers. We watch as Jekyll (Scott Barsotti) battles, comforts, and eventually succumbs to Hyde (Gabe Garza). Basically, it’s a story dwelling on the well-explored turf of Apollonian versus Dionysian. The Mammals make very clear that Jekyll is a man of science while Hyde concerns himself with art and magic (usually through harming cats). We watch as Jekyll, through Hyde, tears into those around him and, finally, into himself.

The play was written by committee, with contributions by Jason Adams, Scott Barsotti, Randall Colburn, Bob Fisher, Reina Hardy, Warwick Johnson, and Jeremy Menekseoglu (whew). It works best when Jekyll and Hyde play off each other like some sort of bipolar comedy duo. The most memorable scene is when the boorish Hyde becomes Jekyll’s wingman, giving him terrible advice for wooing Eve (Sarah Scanlon).

The writers seem to have taken for granted that we all know how the story ends, and the play clumsily spirals into the finale without much concrete motivation. The last couple of scenes, although striking, don’t really connect into a fully-realized arc. The framing device, although funny, doesn’t help things. For some reason, a pair of Siamese twins (Ashlee Edgemon and Anne Marie Boyer, who are not real conjoined twins) do what they can to derail Peale’s demonstration. It also seems like flute-wielding demons are trying to take over the show? Whatever they’re up to, the soundtrack they provide is eerily excellent.

Gabe Garza as Hyde, Sarah Scanlon as Eve, in The Mammals' original production of 'The Dream Journal of Doctor Jekyll', now playing at Zoo Studio.I take issue with the writers’ casual remarks about pedophilia and rape. Some of Hyde’s comments seem like cheap shots for shock value. The play’s moments of high tension are usually overblown, like when Scanlon and Garza scream at each other as they discuss the nature of screams. Again, it’s the comedy that should’ve been the star—the funniest moments can be subversive yet push the story forward. While not one of the smartest points of the show, Garza rolling around on the floor after a punch to the groin and groaning “My balls!” is a highlight.

Either way, the cast fully commits to the material, whether they’re playing a short tune on the dulcimer or screaming at the audience. And some fascinating moments are pulled out of the general chaos. In the last few scenes, a tired Peale goes into a beautifully metatheatrical monologue about the nature of art. John Ross Wilson’s cabinet-o-curios set provides a feast for the eyes, with plenty of drawers and doors for the cast to open and close. Like a dream, a lot of Dream Journal doesn’t quite make sense, but it definitely keeps your interest. Claiming ‘but that’s the point!’ seems a lazy argument to me, but it works well enough to keep this massive collaboration hammering along.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Gabe Garza as Hyde, in The Mammals' 'The Dream Journal of Doctor Jekyll'

The Dream Journal of Doctor Jekyll continues through April 2nd at Zoo Studio, 4001 N. Ravenswood #B1, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 10pm.  BYOB! Tickets are $20, and reservations can be made by calling  866-593-4614.

  
  
March 8, 2011 | 0 Comments More

Review: Hercules (Lyric Opera of Chicago)

  
  

Well-intentioned ‘Hercules’ can’t build momentum

  
  

Part One  HERCULES  Lyric Opera Chorus - Dan Rest

  
Lyric Opera of Chicago presents
  
Hercules
  
Composed by George Frideric Handel
Directed by
Peter Sellars
Conducted by
Harry Bicket
at Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive (map)
thru March 21  | 
tickets: $33-$217  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

For his oratorio Hercules, Handel decided to forego hydras, golden apples, and Augean stables. Instead, he wrote a three hour piece about the very last snippet of Hercules’ myth: the point where the victorious Hercules returns from war and is murdered by his jealous wife, Dejanira, who suspects he bedded his recent captive, Iole. It’s an intense story; the 90’s TV show and Disney movie don’t even touch this stuff. Instead of an epic, Handel crafts an immensely personal and psychologically complex narrative complete with pounding arias and swirling recitatives.

Mackarthur Johnson, Lucy Crowe in Lyric Opera's 'Hercules'. Photo credit: Dan RestThe puckish Peter Sellars, always one for concepts and re-imaginings, directed this new production of George Frideric Handel’s Hercules. Sellars zooms in on themes concerning how war affects soldiers. The production ponders that even if you can take the warrior out of the war, can you take the war out of the warrior? It is an idea that mystified Sophocles, the writer of Handel’s source material The Trachiniae, yet it’s a problem that we face now with wars in Afghanistan and Iraq still blazing (and veterans living on the street).

Sellars’ Hercules is both an ancient saga and a modern conundrum. Hercules (Eric Owens) wears the camouflage and flak vest of a 21st Century combatant; the captured Iole (Lucy Crowe) dons an Abu Gharib-style orange jumpsuit and sings her first notes from under a black sack. Sellars steals the images from newsreels, slaps them on-stage, and makes them sing.

The major issue with Lyric’s fresh opera is that Handel’s storytelling fails to captivate. He originally meant the piece to be an oratorio, or a “musical drama” in his own words. Handel wrote 26 such oratorios, a genre written for concert performances and negligible interaction amongst performers (or what we in the biz call “acting”). He didn’t necessarily intend for the harpsichord-heavy work to pack opera houses. He packs his composition with de capo arias – loads of thematic repetitions with tidbits of embellishment and alteration as per the singers. The opera feels like an overly-extended Miesner exercise, with certain phrases (such as when Dejanira, overwhelmed by guilt, begs for her ghost to be whipped by scorpions) repeated over and over. It ventures into snooze-fest territory.

Several moments break the pattern and grabs hold of one’s attention. All of the choral numbers were welcome (although the choreography was often out-of-sync), especially when they muse, gossip and hiss about the nature of jealousy. Alice Coote’s Dejanira is the real driver of the story, not the titular hero. Coote’s performance manages to be pained, majestic, and honest. The English mezzo-soprano doesn’t shy away from diving to hellish emotional depths, yet she exudes grace in all she does. When Handel writes him in, Eric Owens’ growling Hercules is also terrific. Crowe’s singing is top-notch even if her characterization is too stiff. One of my personal favorites is David Daniels’ Lichas (a part originally meant for a contralto).  A gopher for Hercules and his wife, we watch as he does all he can to console and connect the couple, even though this ends in terrible failure.

     
Alice Coote, David Daniels, Eric Owens - HERCULES - Dan Rest Eric Owens, Alice Coote - HERCULES - Dan Rest
Alice Coote and David Daniels HERCULES - Photo credit Dan Rest Alice Coote, Eric Owens - HERCULES - Dan Rest Alice Coote Dejanira in HERCULES - Photo Credit Dan Rest

Sellars’ ideas are valuable and pertinent—veterans were brought in for dress rehearsals and gave the production a standing ovation. He fleshes out themes that make Handel seem powerfully contemporary. George Tsypin’s set is simple, just a few weathered columns and boulders, but it comes to life with James Ingalls’ dazzling (and occasionally terrifying) lighting.

Once you dig past Handel’s redundancy, Dejanira and Hercules seem remarkably layered. Stuck on the home front, they are dealing with a realistic quagmire, even if the circumstances (like him being a demigod and her killing him with a coat that rips out his organs) are not. Handel’s Hercules is a confounding work, but Sellars, a populist at heart, stares it down unflinchingly.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Alice Coote, Eric Owens, Lucy Crowe, Marckarthur Johnson, Richard Croft - Hercules - Dan Rest 

March 8, 2011 | 0 Comments More

Review: The Man Who Turned Into a Stick (Geopolis Theater)

  
  

Centuries of Japanese theatrical tradition in show bogs down clear storytelling

 

  

Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company.

  
Geopolis Theater Company presents
  
The Man Who Turned Into a Stick
        
by Kobo Abe
Translated by
Donald Keene
Directed by
Eric Turner
at
Japanese Cultural Center, 1016 Belmont (map)
through April 2  |  tickets: $10-$18  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Geopolis is a newer company in Chicago that has taken on a noble mission by choosing one culture to focus on each year. For their inaugural season they’ve chosen the theater of post-war Japan. These worldly minded artists have housed themselves in Chicago’s beautiful Japanese Cultural Center. Here they have staged acclaimed Japanese writer Kobo Abe’s compilation of three plays written from 1957 – 1969, collectively titled The Man Who Turned Into a Stick. Eric Turner’s direction utilizes space well, creating several visually stunning pictures. But ultimately, this Stick misses the magic and resonance of Abe’s world.

Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company.Upon entering the space (after leaving your shoes at the door), you can almost justify the admission price alone while admiring Mike Mroch’s cherry blossom influenced design, at first sight calming and alive. Four actors are motionless standing guard entombed in their quarters of the set, whereupon you take in Jerica Hucke’s varied and thought-provoking costumes.

The first play on the bill, and the strongest of the night, is “The Suitcase.” A married woman (Miona Harris) shows an unmarried visitor (Marissa Cowsill) a curious suitcase (played with distinctive physical work by Chris Sanderson). This peculiar suitcase emits sounds such as radio clicks and stock market quotes vocalized by Sanderson. The married woman’s husband has forbidden her from opening the suitcase, yet the visitor manipulates the woman’s curiosity. Abe takes a jab at patriarchal society here alluding to denying women access to worldly knowledge (a man’s affairs). Debate upon whether the suitcase contains dead ancestors or a horde of insects ensues. Cowsill’s playfulness keeps this game fun. However, there is a good amount of time when Sanderson’s disembodied reports and the women’s dialogue overlap at such a volume that it becomes difficult to discern what is happening. Eventually, the women accuse each other of the terrible sin of changing, which surely resonates with an isolationist post-war Japan. Finally, the married woman decides upon ignorance and keeps the contents of the suitcase a mystery.

The next piece is titled “The Cliff of Time.” This play puts Sanderson on display. He is a boxer past his prime who needs to win a pivotal fight to avoid dropping in the rankings, and ultimately into oblivion. Along the way Abe makes an elegant allegory to climbing the ladder in life and in the workplace. Turner makes clever use of the ensemble as puppeteer gods controlling the boxer with streams of red cloth. Josh Hoover proves to be a strong presence in this piece, helping to raise the intensity of the stakes while remaining calm and omnipresent. Nevertheless, Sanderson’ performance as the boxer is far from a knockout. The abrasive interpretation and lack of physical specificity during this piece takes away from the possibility of nuance and pathos in Abe’s text. The demanding monologue overcomes Sanderson, forcing the humor and clarity of the story to suffer.

Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company.

The conclusion is the title piece, “The Man Who Turned Into a Stick.” Two hippies (Jon Beal and Miona Harris) come across a stick (played by Sanderson). The stick is without meaning to them until two individuals (Hoover and Cowsill) appear with great interest in the stick and offer to purchase it from them. These individuals turn out to be agents from hell given the task of surveying what objects the dead turn into. Apparently, “98 percent become sticks.” Once again, there is some humor and irony that is lost in this piece. While Hucke’s costumes were impressive initially, one desires a transformation in this act to clarify the roles. Harris’ hippie is still dressed in a traditional kimono while attempting to represent the youth counter culture of the 1960’s. One high point is watching Cowsill develop an intriguing fascination with the stick. However, when Sanderson, as a dead man trapped inside the stick, is left alone for eternity we should sense the frustration of his/our mortality. Unfortunately, as too much of the actors’ focus is centered on muddled stylistic movement, empathy is sacrificed.

Overall, Turner’s concept takes too much precedence over telling Abe’s tales with clarity. Action and character are hindered by attempts to incorporate ritualistic movement, in the likes of Suzuki and Noh theatre, to a point that it detracts from the subtlety and poignancy of Abe’s writing. What we get is a somewhat watered down hodgepodge of Japanese theatrical physicality that could take an ensemble years or decades to master.

To communicate the story of a play is the foremost job of any production. As this company continues to tackle other great theatrical cultures it might do well to remember that if it clearly conveys the story, it already has succeeded greatly in its global endeavor.

     
    
Rating: ★★½
  
  
Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company. Scene from 'The Man Who Turned Into a Stick' by Kobo Abe, presented by Geopolis Theater Company.

The Man Who Turned Into a Stick continues at The Japanese Cultural Center through April 3rd, with performances Saturdays and Sundays at 8:00pm.  Running time is eighty minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $15 online, $18 at the door, and $10 student tickets. For more info visit: http://www.geopolistheater.com/

     
March 7, 2011 | 2 Comments More

Review: Ethan Frome (Lookingglass Theatre)

     
     

Bleak, desperate tale remains with you long after blackout

    
   

Louise Lamson, Lisa Tejero and Philip R. Smith - in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams

   
Lookingglass Theatre presents
   
Ethan Frome
        
Adapted and Directed by Laura Eason
from novel by
Edith Wharton
at
Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave. (map)
thru April 17  | 
tickets: $20 – $63  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Everything about Ethan Frome is cold and stark. The bare branches of the skeletal trees framing the set. The sharp angles of rough-hewn planks representing a New England farm. The minimalist dialogue. The loveless marriage of the piece’s titular anti-hero. The very name of the town where the story plays out: Starkfield.

From set designer Daniel Ostling’s austere evocation of Massachusetts in winter to actor Philip R. Smith’s depiction of the taciturn Ethan, the world of Edith Wharton’s turn-of the-century tragedy is chilly and severe. That harsh sensibility wholly informs Laura Eason’s adaptation of the classic, a terse, 90-minute telling that captures the chill as well as the relentless longing and frustration that define Frome’s life.

Dan Ostling's bleak, powerful set in Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean WilliamsIn creating a world that’s as bleakly spare as a frozen field, Eason (who also directs) gives Wharton’s prose a memorable impact. But that austere ambiance also serves to distance the audience from both story and characters. With Ethan Frome, you’re watching tragedy unfold from afar, as a spectator separated from the action by a scrim of frost. The effect creates a staging that is powerful but muted. Ethan’s troubles come to life from a distance, seen through a metaphorical lens lightly coated in rime.

The production moves at a slow, matter-of-fact pace that matches the temperament of Ethan himself, a New England family farmer of few words. Up until the penultimate scene – a wind-whipped catastrophe staged with such simple and simply beautiful force that it will leave you breathless – the story is one where torrents of emotion are cloaked in small, seemingly inconsequential gestures and almost monosyllable dialogue. The plot is more feeling than doing, and those feelings – roiling blizzards of love, rage, sorrow and yearning – are trapped like the whirling flakes beneath the dome of a snow globe.

Ethan (Philip R. Smith) initially seems more shadow than substance as silently shuffles across a murky stage, one lame foot dragging behind him. His limp and striking, lonesome figure arouses the curiosity of Henry Morton (Andrew White), the out-of-towner whose pensive narration of Frome’s story bookend the story.

Through Henry‘s recollections, we see that Ethan’s quiet life has been defined by sickness and by the women in it. Coming in from a hard day hauling lumber, he’s faced with a dark house and the wailing, disconsolate wailing of his dying mother. He longs, Ethan murmurs, to hear other voices in the home. He gets his desire when Xena, (Lisa Tejero) arrives to care for Ethan’s mother and then marries him after the old woman dies.

But as Tejero makes implicit in Xena’s unsettling transformation from benevolent helpmate to hypochondriac domestic dictator, the one-time nursemaid soon becomes as onerous a burden as the timber Ethan hauls. Tejero makes Xena’s sickly dominance complete; her character is so noxious as to be slowly drowning Ethan in his own home. In Smith’s fine performance, Ethan’s helplessness and increasing hopelessness become almost palpable. His words are soft-spoken and sparse. His eyes are wild with desperation.

     
Andrew White and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams Louis Lamson and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams
Andrew White and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams Louise Lamson and Erik Lochtefeld in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams

Into this oppressive atmosphere comes Xena’s young cousin Mattie Silver (Louise Lamson), a lively, generous woman whose youthful vitality, curiosity and kindness stand in direct contrast to the prematurely aging, forever sickly and self-absorbed Xena. The romantic triangle that results is not surprising. The controlled intensity with which it plays out is memorable, Lamson as luminous as early spring, Tejero the personification of dour, gray winter.

The contrast among the three principals is subtly emphasized in Mara Blumenfeld’s deft costume design. Mattie sports a scarf the color of cherry blossoms, Xena dresses in drab blacks and grays, Smith’s worn, earth-colored trousers speak to Ethan’s rich love of the land. Color, or the lack thereof, plays a similarly key role throughout the production. The fate of Xena’s ruby-red pickle dish is a tragedy in miniature reflecting the larger destruction of entire lives.

That wind-whipped destruction comes tangled in a moment of wild and breathless joy as Eason’s hurtles toward the drama’s ultimately sobering conclusion. The freeze-frame tableau toward the end of Ethan Frome – a bright pool of cherry-colored blood starkly outlined against the haze of winter whites – is apt to remain with you long after the final blackout.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
       
    

Louis Lamson and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams

Extra Credit:

  
  
March 6, 2011 | 0 Comments More

Review: Precious Little (Rivendell Theatre Ensemble)

     
     

Rivendell explores the boundaries of communication

 
   

Marilyn Dodds Frank, Meighan Gerachis - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

   
Rivendell Theatre presents
  
Precious Little
  
Written by Madeleine George 
Directed by
Julieanne Ehre
at DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)
through April 2  | 
tickets: $15-$25  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

If you’re going to present a play about language, you may as well cast Marilyn Dodds Frank. Among her high attributes—she has plenty, versatility and precision hover near the top—Frank lays claim to one of the most interesting voices in Chicago. That’s a dubious designation, I guess, but much of Madeleine George’s Precious Little is indebted to it. Whether she be dressed as a gorilla (abstractly, thank god) in a zoo or timidly counting numbers aloud as a frail, elderly woman in a recording booth, Frank’s tenor and masterful delivery lends authority and depth to her multiple characters and, consequently, to George’s mixed-bag of a play.

Marilyn Dodds Frank, Kathy Logelin, Meighan Gerachis - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble - Precious Little 007More or less a showcase for fine acting, the scope of Precious Little is limited, but focused: an 80-minute meditation on human communication’s shortcomings told through three interweaving narratives. A lesbian professor and linguistics researcher (Meighan Gerachis) struggles to cope with news that her artificially-inseminated child may suffer a mental disability upon delivery. Stressed with complications in her research and unable to find enough solace confiding in her graduate-assistant lover (Kathy Logelin), the professor looks toward unconventional alternatives for an emotional connection.

Gerachis plays the troubled teacher with a balanced sense of sympathy and fault. Having sex with her student, betraying the trust of her test subject’s daughter, and openly confessing that she’d be more willing to handle raising a child with a physical set-back instead of a mental retardation, Brodie isn’t the most admirable protagonist. Gerachis makes those flaws identifiable and human.

The burdens these women shoulder aren’t light—a career-risking affair, an ailing mother, the ethics of abortion—yet the stakes of director Julieanne Ehre’s play never simmer to a high boil.

But maybe they don’t need to. The drama is frequently dotted with intellectual musings and light humor, and the partial detachment allows complicated ideas about expression to appear more clearly. Then again, if we’re to empathize with a supposedly sane 40-something-year-old scientist who’s driven to the extremity of fantasizing romantically about a caged animal, it would help if there were more emotional gravity to cling to along the ride. Ehre’s program note suggests the “quest for definitive knowledge ultimately leads to an acceptance of ambiguity.” Really though, it’s willingness of Precious Little to settle for ambiguity that sells the plight of its characters a bit short. What we are given to ruminate, however, is worthwhile, said subtly and said sincerely.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  
Marilyn Dodds Frank - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble - Precious Little Meighan Gerachis, Marilyn Dodds Frank - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble - Precious Little
Meighan Gerachis, Kathy Logelin, Marilyn Dodds Frank - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble - Precious Little Marilyn Dodds Frank - Rivendell Theatre Ensemble - Precious Little

Precious Little continues through April 2nd at the DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph, with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $15-$25, and can be purchased online or by calling 312-742-8497.

     
     
March 5, 2011 | 1 Comment More

Review: Baby Wants Candy (Apollo Theater Chicago)

  
  

Celebrating 14th year in Chicago, “Baby” wants a little more finesse

  
  

Nathan Jansen, Brendan Dowling, Erica Elam, Nick Semar, Christy Bonstell, Zach Thompson, Ben McFadden, Chris Ditton, Kevin Florain, Sam Super - Baby Wants Candy - Apollo Theatre Chicago - Photo: Joanna Feldman.

  
Apollo Theater presents
   
Baby Wants Candy
   
Developed by Peter Gwinn, Al Samuels,
Stuart Ranson, Bob Kulhan and Don Bardwell
Written weekly by ‘Baby’ cast
at
Apollo Theatre, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
Open Run  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Oh, to have witnessed Baby Wants Candy at its Chicago inception 14 years ago – first performing at iO Theatre before, later, moving to the present Apollo mainstage. The brain-child of Peter Gwinn, Al Samuels, Stuart Ranson, Bob Kulhan and Don Bardwell, Baby Wants Candy’s central premise is this: the troupe improvises a new musical every performance, created from a title shouted out from the audience. The tactic had its formulas, but each evening the actors spontaneously crafted and performed a new one-hour long musical, never to be seen again. Previously performed musicals include: Peace Corps: the Musical, The Day the Gingers Ruled the World: the Musical, David Hasselhoff’s Secret Children: the Musical, and The Department of Redundancy Department: the Musical.

Zach Thompson, Erica Elam, Christy Bonstell, Brendan Dowling, Sam Super, Kevin Florian, Ben McFadden, Chris Ditton, Nick Semar, Nathan Jansen - 'Baby Wants Candy'  - Photo credit: Joanna Feldman.On the evening I attended, one audience member beat everyone else to the punch by throwing out The Confessions of a Teenage Rahm Emmanuel. How something that biographical would have been handled by Baby’s original member Peter Gwinn is anyone’s guess. Unfortunately, the new cast seemed to be just finding their feet with Baby Wants Candy’s drill. They seemed constrained and hesitant. They pulled back from a full out rift on Emmanuel. The team fell back on teenage high school formulas and played it fairly safe with Emmanuel’s life story. Although they generated a few laughs in spoken scenes, they floundered on producing consistently distinctive or funny musical lyrics. Relax, guys, he’s not mayor yet and, besides, making up random and absurd shit about Rahm, of all people, is the essence of improv.

There were a few bright moments, though they largely centered on the teenage Rahm’s balls. Rahm’s dream of going from high school loser to prom king felt fairly predictable, yet it yielded a bit of fun in his algebra teacher’s encouragement to join ballet–“Ballet Will Give You Balls” being the one successful tune of the evening. From then on, the jokes were pretty much about Rahm’s balls. Rahm’s balls rule the school hallways. Rahm’s balls hijacked a car once. Rahm’s rival, Troy, attempts to cut off Rahm’s balls at high school prom but only manages to get his finger. Seldom did the cast attempt to venture out from the safety of ball jokes—like one student claiming baby wants candy logohis dad was a moon-ologist or the momentary inspiration of having Christopher Walken host Rahm’s prom.

Baby Wants Candy has made it big in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and with its international touring company in Singapore and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. Perhaps last weekend was just a little off with a new team. Then again, perhaps the franchise is showing quality control problems. Formulas may be necessary but an improv troupe has to have enough security with them so that it can take off to new horizons. For all the team’s struggles last weekend, the band held tight and ready under Ben McFadden’s direction. That remains the strongest element of performance—let’s hope it carries right on through to the rest of the cast every evening.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
      
     

Baby Wants Candy performs Fridays at 10:30pm on the Mainstage at the Apollo Theater, 2540 North Lincoln Ave. in Chicago.  Tickets are $15.  Student discounts are available with a valid student ID the day of the show only.  For tickets, call the Apollo Theater box office at 773-935-6100, Ticketmaster at 312-559-1212 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.  More info at BWC website.

  
  
March 5, 2011 | 0 Comments More

Review: An Enemy of the People (Stage Left Theatre)

  
  

Stage Left’s ‘Enemy’ requires suspension of cynicism

  
  

William Watt as Doctor Stockmann, An Enemy of the People. Photo credit: Johnny Knight

  
Stage Left Theatre presents
   
An Enemy of the People
   
Original play by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by
Arthur Miller
Directed by
Jason Fleece
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through April 3  |  tickets: $22-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

‘Before many can know it, one must know it.’ Corporate, government, media, medical: which “expert” is most credible to announce an environmental threat? Stage Left Theatre presents An Enemy of the People. The play was originally written in 1882 by Henrik Ibsen and adapted in the 1950’s by Arthur Miller. It’s1959 in Norway. The Institution has capitalized on a vacation hot springs spot. The entire town benefits from tourists seeking a healthy retreat. The doctor at The Institution finds killer bacteria in the water. Delighted over the important scientific discovery, the doctor tells the mayor the deadly risk to the community. The mayor doesn’t have an emergency response. In fact, the mayor believes the real harmful substance isn’t in the water…. it’s his brother. The mayor and the doctor also happen to have a toxic brother relationship. The doctor wants to alert the public to the health risk. The mayor wants to Scene from 'An Enemy of the People'. Stage Left Theatre. photo by Johnny Knightisolate the problem… his brother. It takes a village to avoid a scandal. The town takes sides against a brother. An Enemy of the People is a nostalgic look back at days gone be. It’s the simpler times when elected officials, local newspapers, and spring waters were unquestionably pure.

The premise of the play requires suspension of cynicism. In 2011, Americans drink water out of bottles, scan the Internet for credible media sources, and scrutinize every politician comment for bullshit. The very plot of the play requires a childlike wonder that is difficult to muster. Without it, connecting with the characters is difficult. This particular production never quite successfully bridges the generational gap. Some directorial choices by Jason Fleece makes the flow clunky and artificial. The large cast has some individual standout moments but overall seems disjointed in attempts to come together. In the lead, William J. Watt (Doctor) plays it over-the-top and in-the-face, whining his opinion. Watt seems less like a man of science and more like a spoiled child. In a complete departure from the play’s intention, a sympathy arises for his persecutors.The other brother, Cory Krebsbach (Mayor) plays it much more subtle. Krebsbach is all-politician smooth-talking the town into rallying against medical expertise and their own health. Bringing comic relief, James Eldrenkamp (Aslaksen) is funny ‘in moderation’, Kurt Conroyd (drunk) makes a hysterical spectacle and Sandy Elias (Morton) is a curmudgeon cartoon.

The set, designed by Alan Donahue, has an Ikea-does-cabin-look. It’s all wooden with a strong modern ambiance. Apparently, the middle of the set provides a shadowboxing effect for a mob scene. The audience semi-circles the stage. I was sitting stage right and didn’t observe the dramatic effect.

Back in the day, An Enemy of the People must have raged a war on authority. Today, Americans are continually in conflict with leaders. The evolution of thought to modern times makes the content less profound. This production is somewhere between an enemy and a friend of the people.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
  

An Enemy of the People continues at Theater Wit through April 3rd, with performances Thursdays, Friday, and Saturdays at 7:30pm; Sundays at 2:30pm.  Running time is two hours and thirty minutes with a ten minute intermission. Tickets are $22-$28, and can be purchased online or by calling 773-975-8150.

  
  
March 5, 2011 | 1 Comment More