Review: 8th Annual ‘Cut to the Chase’ One-Act Play Fest

The Artistic Homes’ 8th Annual One-Act Play Fest, Cut to the Chase – go for the late-night fun and stay for the great acting.

Last Days of the Dinosaurs

Cut To The Chase
The 8th Annual One-Act Playfest

Palace of Riches, directed by John Mossman.
The Waiting, directed by Matthew Welton.
Last Days of Dinosaurs, directed by Luis Crespo.
Sponsored by The Artistic Home

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Late-night theater like this inspires a lot of drinking and frolicking among the audience, who are typically friends of the cast and playwrights, out for a bit of fun. Still, who would suspect that some of the best acting of the season could take place in a little known venue such as this? And yet it does. The dramatic skill and maturity of the actors makes The 8th Annual Cut to the Chase compelling theater to watch, even when sometimes the material is a little lacking.

The Artistic Home sponsors this one-act play fest each year, and, at least for this year, it seems each play must fulfill these requirements: they must start with the line, “Like most alcoholics, he drove a van . . . .”; they must make use of a gasoline can, a parking meter, and chicken on a silver platter; they must conform to a certain theatrical genre. Palace of Riches by Jim Lynch, though set on Chicago’s west side, seems to be based on Damon Runyon’s work; The Waiting by Christine Hodak seems to be pretty much a one-act mock-up of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot; and Last Days of Dinosaurs by Matt Welton is a surrealist train wreck.

Palace1 Lynch’s play, Palace of Riches,strikes the happiest balance between written material and actors’ talents. The down-and-out trio of Zeke (Eric Simon), Eddie (Tim Musachio), and Sara (Kathryn Danforth) could have degenerated into simplistic stereotypes, but all three actors exemplify the actor’s craft, displaying maturity, depth, timing, making human connections between all three characters that lie at the heart of the heart of this play. Humor that might have been too hokey in someone else’s hands comes off as witty, charming, and humane from these pros. Tim Musachio makes his Eddie almost valiant with the hope of someday being something more than “a mook” for his own daughter; Kathryn Danforth portrays a messy drunk with sympathy and humanity; and Eric Simon embodies the cunning resourcefulness, mischief, and even poetry that characterizes Zeke.

Waiting3 The Waiting practically rewrites half of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but to what end? Beckett had a thing about not wanting women to take on roles in his plays and Christine Hodak creates a Pozzo-style character in Audrey (Samantha Church), worshipfully served by her own Lucky Joe (Buck Zachary)–complete with leash, suggesting some BDSM humor. Hodak also gives a satirical nod to women’s spirituality feminism with a little goddess-y ritual that Audrey performs before she departs from Oscar (Michael Denini) and Felix (J. P. Pierson). But what is the point to be made—that women can be as domineering and dictatorial as men? Forgive me for sounding a little jaundiced, but I lived through the Reagan/Thatcher years—that’s nothing new to me. The only pay-off in the end is the deeper development of Felix, who takes on a greater aspect of consciousness, even if he remains somewhat under Oscar’s control. But whatever its shortcomings, The Waiting benefits from the unflagging zeal, commitment, and nuance of the actors.

LastDays3 Sad to say, actor talent and commitment cannot save Last Days of Dinosaurs. Matt Welton has taken stereotypes—Alice (Liz Ladach-Bark) as the June Cleaver housewife, the flatfooted Cop (Matt Ciavarella), Carol (Marissa Cowsill) as the raving fundamentalist evangelical daughter, and Stephen (Kirk Mason) as the ravening Alpha-male son—and geared them all up for their own cataclysmic melt-down. While each character is introduced to good humorous effect, without deeper development, why should the audience care about them? Once one gets the joke and can see the train wreck coming within the first five minutes, what is there to hold one’s attention? What is more, each of these characters need greater development in how or why they identify as they do and what they want from each other, beyond the overplayed one-note of dominating the scene. It’s only the sexual titillation between Alice and the Cop that begins to branch out from the original premise. All the rest is shouting.

Still, The Artistic Home provides a vital space for new work. Go for the late-night fun and stay for great acting.

Rating: ««

Review: ‘Million Dollar Quartet’

As quartets go, this one does in fact look and sound like a million bucks.

Jerry Lee on piano with cast, H

Million Dollar Quartet
Apollo Theatre, 2540 N. Lincoln Ave. (more info)

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

“I don’t record singers, I record souls,” proclaims Sun Records’ legendary founder Sam Phillips midway through the unstoppable “Million Dollar Quartet.” From most people, it’s a statement that would sound as cheesy as a pitch from a third-rate used car salesman. Here, it’s a declaration of goose-bump rising authenticity. And when that same honey-over-gravel drawl command “Sing it to me the way you’d sing it to Jesus,” you know what follows is going to be as memorable as the night they tore old Dixie down.

Close to nine months after it opened, Million Dollar Quartet shows no signs of depreciating. Detailing the now-legendary Sun Studios recording session of Dec. 4, 1956, it’s the rare juke box musical that actually benefits from its lack of a plot. The music is iconic, rocketing off the stage as Rob Lyons (Carl Perkins), Lance Guest (Johnny Cash), Levi Kreis (Jerry Lee Lewis) and Eddie Clendening (Elvis Presley) deliver 100 seamless minutes of irresistible tunage. Dec. 4, 1956 might have been a chilly night in Memphis, but inside Phillips (Brian McCaskill) Sun Studios, it was blistering.

Lewis, Carl Perkins, Jay Perkins, Cash, Elvis, V It’s impossible to understate the influence Perkins, Cash, Lewis and Lewis had in shaping rock ‘n roll. Directed by Floyd Matrux and Eric Schaeffer (book by Matrux and Colin Escott), MDQ doesn’t try to explain that influence like some school of rock history lesson. Instead, it celebrates the music, punctuating the explosive set list with telling bits of exposition. Kids who wouldn’t be caught dead buying that “negro music” were sneaking off at night to listen to it, Phillips muses. The million dollar question: “What if I could find a white kid who could light a fire under songs like those Negroes?” He found the epic answer to that “what if” Elvis, among others. And he knew long before many others that rock wasn’t a fad, it was a revolution.

Million Dollar Quartet is set shortly after Elvis Presley’s first movie (“Love Me Tender”) opened. He’s still young and beautiful, worlds away from the bloat and hype of his Vegas years. Like everyone else in the production, Clendening is perfectly cast. His Elvis is mercurial, a reckless lightning bolt just itching to set the world on fire. Rocking out with the woe-erasing “That’s All Right” or providing the Cathedral-worthy anchor vocals to the plaintive hymn “Peace in the Valley,” he’s as charismatic and gifted as you’d expect from an artist simply known as The King.

But even the mighty Elvis is taken aback by Jerry Lee Lewis, the brash, obnoxiously self-assured “crazy Cajun” boywonder. As for Kreis’ interpretation of a boy so fresh off the farm he can entertain himself for hours just flushing the new-fangled indoor toilets, it’s dominates the prodpuction, casting a white-hot aura of inspired, barely contained lunatic genius over the whole endeavor.

Like Lewis, Kreis is a showman of unstoppable energy, whether whipping through six-octaves of feral arpeggios or punting his piano bench into the cheap seats with a single kick that’s as powerful as an angry mule. It’s best to get a seat where you can see Kreis hands and feet at all times – he attacks the keyboards with both. When he launches into “Real Wild Child” or “Whole Lotta Shakin,” better just stand the heck back as it becomes crystal clear why Johnny Cash deemed Lewis “the mother-humpingest piano player I ever did see.”

As for Guest’s laconic Cash, he’s steeped in a subtle aura of souful sorrow, giving “Rock Island Line” and “Sixteen Tons” a mournful weariness and an unshakable sense of loss. He also nails the script’s deadpan humor. (“I been everywhere, man,” Cash shrugs after being asked about his whereabouts.) As a guitarist, Guest is no trifler: At the performance we attended, he snapped his D-string less than four bars in to “Riders in the Sky.” Talk about grace under pressure: It didn’t slow him down so much as a 16th note.

Lyons’ Perkins is the most underwritten of the lot. He primarily serves as a foil to Lewis’ childish provocations (“Somebody get a shovel and scoop that up.”) He also provides some of the meager dramatic tension there is in the production: Perkins wrote “Blue Suede Shoes” – a credit that was largely overlooked once Elvis performed the song on national television. You can all but feel Perkins’ frustrated ire roiling off the stage.

As in the real recording session, Elvis’ smoking hot girlfriend shows up to inject a bit of sizzling estrogen into party. As Dyanne, Kelly Lamont has the vocals to match the smoldering personality. Her slinky, sultry “Fever” is appropriately scorching.

When MDQ performed at this year’s Tonys, it was during commercial breaks – television viewers didn’t have a chance to see the ensemble. So if your Tony invite got lost in the mail (as mine does every dang year) and you thus missed seeing the quartet live in New York, do consider seeing them here. As quartets go, this one does in fact look and sound like a million bucks.

“Million Dollar Quartet” continues as an open run at the Apollo Theatre, 2540 N. Lincoln Ave. Tickets are $25 – $64.50 and available online at www.milliondollarquartetlive.com or by calling 773/935-6100.

Rating:  «««½

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Review: Red Ink Theatre’s “iAlone”

Red Ink Theatre’s iAlone remounted at The Artistic Home

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Nathan Stone, Erin Lane, Brian Bush, and Anna Schlegel of Red Ink Theatre reprise these actor-written monologues, which met with success during their first performances at The Spot in 2008 and again at the Abbie Hoffman Festival at the Mary Arrchie Theatre. While self-exposure is very much the name of the game in iAlone, rigorous artistic discipline prevents these young monologists from spiraling into navel gazing and self-pity. The best monologs are lively, descriptive, full of youthful yearning, while at the same time maintain an unsentimental clarity about those tendencies that lead to self-victimization.

Erin Lane, presently performing in Red Ink Theatre's "iAlone" “Eating 4 One” by Erin Lane is the most powerful and unforgettable monolog of the bunch. Following on the heels of “Dave,” a monolog about Lane’s downwardly mobile boyfriend, “Eating 4 One” relates her accidental pregnancy, resulting from their last evening of sexual intercourse before the breakup. In this era of dangerous abortion politics, who would dare expect in the theater an admission of an abortion being practically therapeutic in the life of a young woman? Yet Lane’s progress from being wronged by her boyfriend and betrayed by contraception, to self-assertion and self-preservation defies expectations. Even though, by the end of the abortion, the relationship with Dave clearly is on its last legs, the audience knows she will survive anything.

Nathan Stoner, currently performing in Red Ink Theatre's "iAlone" Nathan Stoner brings the greatest whimsy and playfulness to the stage with “Hide and Seek” and “My Boys;” the first being a meditation on the power of pop tunes to inform any romance with wistful, dreamlike qualities, and the second reveals the homoerotic awakening of a 12 year-old boy in a hot tub with his brother’s straight friends. Stoner adds much needed levity to this production, since the other monologists produce material that is much heavier in style and substance.

Anna Schlegel, currently performing in Red Ink Theatre's "iAlone" With “Enlightenment,” Anna Schlegel exposes so much of her own erotic intensity, and its capacity to make her betray herself, that one fears for her, until “Burn One Down” reveals her own happy ending—a lover who appreciates all her aspects, from lust for life, to sloppy slouching around on weekend mornings.

Of all the monologs on addiction, Brian Bush’s Tiny Hooks” stands out. It seems the perfect climax for a guy that has sought out emotionally unattached sexual encounters and now finds himself used by them. He both desperately needs, yet desperately dreads his weekly encounters with a prostitute and her tiny hooks.

Brian Bush, currently performing in Red Ink Theatre's "iAlone"Set design for this production is rudimentary at best and might serve more as a distraction than fulfillment the original premise. The premise being that both audience and performers, sitting together on the el, are distracted and distanced from one another by iPod usage—yet everyone has their untold stories and secret burdens. The seats for the “el” are the crudest plywood; the “el” doors opening and shutting remind one of the cheap, makeshift set of the first Star Trek series. But I hope the performers know that their monologs are strong enough to stand alone, without this conceit. Or that the same effect might be achieved with lighting and sound alone—something to consider when weighing the costs of production for a small theater company.

Rating: «««

When:  Thurs – Saturday 8pm, Sundays 3pm
Dates: May 28th – June 27th
Where:   Artistic Home Theatre, 3914 N. Clark
Tickets:  $15, (buy tickets)

iAlone Poster 

Learn more about Red Ink Theatre by clicking “Read more”

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