Tag: Tyler Ross
December’s end brings frantic resolutions, plans for heavy drinking and of course, a barrage of best/worst lists. Being the largest theater review site west of Broadway, Chicago Theater Beat covered over 600 shows in 2011, and the difficulty of choosing the top 25 speaks to the city’s vibrant cultural landscape. In alphabetical order, here are our choices for the year’s best:
Despite inconsistencies, provocative tale sets mind reeling
|Chicago Dramatists presents|
|Written by Marisa Wegrzyn
Directed by Russ Tutterow
at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through June 12 | tickets: $32 | more info
In Hickorydickory, Chicago playwright Marisa Wegrzyn has penned a piece with the potential for becoming a mind-bending, provocative black comedy. With bloody and disturbing – and bloody disturbing – finesse, she spins a story that’s part smart dysfunctional family comedy, part coming-of-age drama and part gore-packed thriller.
But – and this is a significant “but” – Hickorydickory in many ways still feels like an early draft rather than a polished, finished product. Clocking in at a few minutes under three hours, it is in serious need of editing. Moreover, Wegrzyn keeps the rules she establishes for her fantasy sci-fi-esque tale of mortality in place only so long as they suit the plot. That means Hickorydickory is marred by false crises. Imagine the story of Rapunzel – girl trapped in an inaccessible tower, prince faced with the challenge of accessing it – but instead of ending with a creative solution involving a hair ladder, happily-ever-after is achieved when the prince suddenly realizes he can fly. Even in the worlds of fantasy, magic and sci-fi, the parameters need to be consistent for the dramatic tension to hold.
Hickorydickory’s chief strength lies in Wegrzyn’s ability to merge the ordinary with the fantastical. Her characters are people you know, a relatable, middle-class family forced to contend with situations one would expect to see wizards or sorcerers or elves in. It’s not really magical realism. Hickorydickory isn’t awash in dreamscapes and phantasms. Instead, it shows the everyday nuts, bolts and blood of living with something that just happens to defy the rules of science and the space-time continuum.
Director Russ Tutterow deftly merges both the ordinariness and the mind-blowing fairy tale-esque elements of Hickorydickory. Early on, the worlds of the real and the surreal clash with an impact that elicits laughter and gasps in the same moment. Attempting to repair an old pocket watch, a watch repair apprentice carefully opens the shiny antique – and gets an eyeful of blood when a crimson geyser spews from he workings. It’s an extraordinary event in an ordinary moment, powerfully realized.
Clearly, we’re not dealing with Swatches here. Third-generation (at least) clock and watch repairer Jimmy (Thomas Gebbia) specializes in a very particular brand: Mortal clocks. As Jimmy and his wife Kate (Gail Rastorfer) explain with exposition that is seamlessly woven into Wegrzyn’s conversational dialogue, mortal clocks reveal the precise moment – and cause – of their owner’s death. Most people are unaware of their mortal clocks, but every once in a great while someone is tragically born with their mortal clock lodged in the brain instead in its proper place behind the heart. Those unfortunate souls are burdened with knowing when, where and how they will die. Along with that heavy knowledge, they are continually subjected to a relentless tick-tocking countdown toward that final, fatal moment.
Life with this birth defect isn’t living, laments Jimmy’s 17-year-old daughter Dale (Cathlyn Melvin), it’s dying. And Dale is doubly burdened – first with the knowledge of her death’s date, and second with the fact that although she’s only a senior at New Trier, the date is imminent. Her life is a death march, her doom quite literally weighing on her mind.
Dale’s escape from the torturous ticking lies at the center of Wegrzyn’s plot. In flashbacks, we meet Dale’s teenage parents and learn the traumatic circumstances that led to her clock becoming misplaced. We also learn the lore of mortal clockery, much of it kept in a tome that looks, appropriately, like something out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It’s in the user’s manual that Wegrzyn falters. As two generations of clock shop owners assert, the years allotted by a mortal clock are inalterable. Or at least they are until someone conveniently finds a timely exception.
Hickorydickory is marred by inconsistencies in aging as well. Some people with mortal clocks (Dale’s grandmother, Helen) stop aging at a seemingly random point, while others age normally. On a similar note: Dale’s father Jimmy is supposed to be in his early-mid 30s but looks to be in his 50s. Since the math of their ages plays an important role in the plot, his premature aging is a tad distracting.
And for all Hickorydickory’s need of editing, Wegrzyn leaves some tantalizing issues curiously unexamined. Dale’s mother Cari Lee (Joanne Dubach) doesn’t age. Unlike Helen, Cari Lee’s arrested development is explained. But how does a person trapped at 17 survive for decades? Cari Lee is a sort of female Peter Pan, trying to live outside the cocoon of Neverland. But beyond making her a spoiled, immature brat who becomes irritating after her first scene, Wegrzyn fails to plumb Cari Lee’s psychology – or explain why she hasn’t been accused by her neighbors of being a vampire. Another hole: Characters occasionally bump into younger versions of themselves, even though there’s never any indication that mortal clocks can conjure up living, corporeal flashbacks.
Still, Hickorydickory sets the mind reeling with its implications. And the cast, many of them playing two roles, is solid. As Dale and the young incarnation of Kate, Melvin is terrific. She ably captures both Dale’s profound inner sadness at knowing when she’s destined to die and the tough, sarcastic outer exterior she dons to cope with that sadness. Rastorfer is capable as Dale’s loving stepmother Kate, although as Dale’s grandmother Helen she’s rather like Norma Desmond swanning through an especially grandiose audition – which is to say, more melodramatically suited to a silent movie than a realistic drama.
The other wonderfully realized aspect of Hickorydickory is Simon Lashford’s detailed set. Crammed with every imaginable kind of clock – grandfathers down to pocket watches – it’s an emporium where it feels like the past truly lives alongside the present. Barry Bennett’s original music is an evocative mix of echo-ey strings and delicate percussive ticks. If the passage of time made a sound, this would be it.
Chicago Dramatists’ Hickorydickory continues through June 12th at their performance space, 1105 W. Chicago (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $32, and can be purchased from their online box office. For more information, go to chicagodramatists.org.
Jackie Robinson honored with fun and dynamic storytelling
|Chicago Children’s Theatre presents|
|Jackie and Me|
|Written by Steven Dietz
Based on book by Dan Gutman
Directed by Derrick Sanders
at Ruth Page Center for the Arts
1016 N. Dearborn Avenue (map)
through March 27 | tickets: $25-$35 | more info
Reviewed by Paige Listerud
Chicago Children’s Theatre has a triumph on their hands. Their world premiere production of Jackie and Me has nothing less than heart—miles and miles of heart. Based on the children’s book by Dan Gutman, frankness and joyful simplicity dominate Steven Dietz’s script. Derrick Sanders’ fresh and focused direction energizes the story of Jackie Robinson, the black athlete who broke the color barrier in baseball. Jackie and Me doesn’t just relate Robinson’s story accessibly to young audiences, but also makes it lively, passionate and dynamic. The play teaches young people the degrading and often dangerous racism Robinson had to overcome just to play in the white major leagues. But equally threaded throughout the story is an unquenchable enthusiasm for baseball, its history and power to connect generations.
Young Joey Stoshack (Tyler Ross) has an undying love for baseball. Joey also has a peculiar gift—by simply holding an old baseball card in his hand he can travel back in time to meet the baseball player pictured on the card. When his teacher gives his class the assignment of writing biographical reports of great African Americans, Joey is relieved to learn that Jackie Robinson is on the list. An old friend Flip (Sean Cooper) lends him a Bond Bread card with Jackie Robinson’s picture on it and he travels back to learn history as it happened.
The characters of Jackie and Me are drawn bold and big—and they don’t get much bigger or bolder than Branch Rickey (Charles Stransky) signing Jackie Robinson (Kamal Angelo Bolden) to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Sanders’ direction allows his cast to project their characters with directness and clarity while exuberantly moving the story forward–and the production goes beyond idealizing the larger-than-life characters of Rickey and Robinson, simply and potently enshrined by Stransky and Bolden. Just when one thinks the time travel bit won’t convince, it convinces. Just when one thinks the story’s unabashed optimism might come off too hokey or old-fashioned, it convinces. Sanders and his excellent cast bring across the nobility and hopefulness of Robinson’s achievement with masterful assurance.
Plus, it’s a whole lot of fun. Ross’s open and straightforward emotion allows audiences, both young and old, to connect with Joey’s journey. Patrick de Nicola provides infinite comic relief in a number of other roles in which he plays Joey’s rival. As Joey’s Mom and Dad, Vanessa Greenway and Ron Rains make warm, human and realistic parents. Chicago Children’s Theatre goes to the very heart of storytelling and reveals the diamonds that are there. Jackie and Me has the stuff to uplift and rejuvenate audiences of all ages and remind them of the glory of baseball at the center of the American Dream.
Performances of Jackie and Me continue through March 27, 2011 at the Ruth Page Center for the Arts, 1016 North Dearborn. Tickets are $25 for children (ages 17 and under) and $35 for adults, available through CCT’s website, chicagochildrenstheatre.org, or the ticket hotline, (866) 811-4111.
Jackie and Me is recommended for children ages 8 and older as it deals with historical racism in an honest manner.
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Cast: Kamal Angelo Bolden as Jackie Robinson, Tyler Ross as Joey Stoshack, with Tracey N. Bonner (Rachel), Patrick De Nicola (Ant), Ron Rains (Dad), Vanessa Greenway (Mom), Sean Cooper (Flip) and Charles Stransky (Branch Rickey).
Production: Steven Dietz (playwright), Derrick Sanders (director), Ian Zywica (set), Seth Reinick (lights), Christine Pascual (costumes), Michael Griggs (sound) and Kimberly Morris (props), Michael Brosilow (photography).
Did I mention we’re in Pittsburgh?
|Route 66 Theatre presents|
|McMeekin Finds Out|
|Written by Scott T. Barsotti
Directed by Damon Kiely
at Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through November 14 | tickets: $25-$37 | more info
Reviewed by Keith Ecker
I hate seeing a bad play. You walk into the theater full of hope and high on expectations. The play may start out okay: an intriguing opening, some snappy dialogue and characters that are brimming with potential. But by the intermission, you realize the mess you’ve gotten yourself into, so you reach for your car keys. But then you remember you’re a theatre critic, so you have to stay and see if this agonizingly, dead-on-arrival play miraculously gets any better. And, more often than not, it doesn’t. Now you’re out two hours of your time, plus you must set out on the task of panning someone else’s beloved creation, which, let me tell you, makes you feel like a total and utter schmuck.
Route 66 Theatre Company’s world premier of McMeekin Finds Out makes me feel like a schmuck. This play is so seriously flawed that I am amazed the collective of talented artists behind the production didn’t demand this thing incubate a bit longer before letting it go to term. Don’t get me wrong; there is certainly potential. But as it stands, this mess of a slapstick comedy is like seeing a mediocre improv show, where everything rests on a thrown-together goofy premise and where louder means funnier.
The play, written by Scott T. Barsotti, centers around a family in Pittsburgh. And Barsotti doesn’t let you forget for a minute where this play takes place. Mentions of the Steelers occur in every other sentence, and everyone possesses the standard Pittsburgh dialect, sprinkling their dialogue with words like “yinz.”
At the play’s opening, we witness the daughter Carla (Blair Robertson) getting on a guy at a house party. She’s drunk, and we can’t quite see the young man the way the couch is positioned. What we do know is that he’s immobilized somehow, possibly drunk or possibly tied up. In any case, she proceeds to have sex with him, which surprisingly serves as the basis of the play’s entire plot. That’s because, upon arriving home the next morning, Carla confesses to her parents, Guy (Randy Steinmeyer) and Pam (Kate Buddeke), that she may have raped the young man, since technically he didn’t consent.
That’s about it. There’s really not much more to this play. Oh sure, Guy and Pam are both laid up due to a car accident that was Guy’s fault. Guy now wears casts on both arms, which may have destroyed his career in construction. And Pam’s leg cast has made it impossible for her to continue being a chef for the time being. But Guy’s underlying guilt over the accident and Pam’s resentment are barely touched upon. Instead, the question of whether Carla raped a boy and what is the family to do dominates every single moment.
And perhaps this wouldn’t be so bad if we, the audience, hadn’t already seen exactly what happened within the first minutes of the play. We know that she took advantage of this boy. We know most of the circumstances. And so when characters continually say things like, “Well, we don’t really know what happened,” you want to yell, “We do!” and hope everyone just moves on to something more interesting.
Another issue I had with this play is that it’s just not funny. The humor, solely because of the subject matter, occasionally verges on edgy. But overall, most of the jokes are on par with sappy sitcom schlock.
For what it’s worth, much of the acting is solid. Steinmeyer is entertaining. His portrayal of Guy is as if you mashed Edith and Archie Bunker into one person. Likewise, Buddeke provides some much-needed understatement and realism to this otherwise over-the-top, harebrained play.
McMeekin Finds Out doesn’t know what it’s trying to say. It goes nowhere while being simultaneously all over the place. Worst of all, there’s no driving force that compels the audience to keep watching. Give this play a thorough rewrite or transform it into a brief one act and you may have something. Otherwise, the only thing you’ll find out is that you just sat through a bad play.