Happy Thanksgiving to all…

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Review: Court Theatre’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep”

Just go see it. Now.

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Court Theatre presents:

The Mystery of Irma Vep

by Charles Ludlam
directed by Sean Graney
thru December 13th (ticket info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Irma Vep 1 Productions like Court Theatre‘s The Mystery of Irma Vep are the reason why theater will always survive as an art form. The rush of watching two actors play multiple characters in a live setting with rapid fire costume (and gender) changes while telling a story about werewolves, vampires, ancient Egyptian princesses, and missing wives is unbelievable. This is an experience that you can’t find at the movies, can’t stream on YouTube, and can’t download to your PS3. The amount of energy required to successfully pull off Charles Ludlam‘s penny dreadful is astounding, and Erik Hellman and Chris Sullivan give masterful performances as the play’s six characters. Whether they’re playing "The Last Rose of Summer" on dulcimers, crawling over audience members transported to the pyramids of Cairo, or fondling mummified breasts, the actors never drop their energy, and the result is two of the most hilarious and exhilarating hours seen on the Chicago stage this season.

Sean Graney has established himself as one of the city’s best directors when it comes to high energy, high manic productions, and the fact that he can seamlessly transition from a heartwarming children’s theater production like The 100 Dresses (our review) to the risque, raunchy Irma Vep while maintaining a consistent directorial voice is mind boggling. Graney loves to get his actors in the audience at some point during his productions, and a scene where Hellman, as widowed archaeologist Lord Edgar, and Sullivan, as Muppet-browed Egyptian tour guide Alcazar, move through the rows of the house on their way to the stage at the start of Act II is a riot. Graney tears down the barrier between audience and actor, and Hellman sat on the laps of my guest and I, offered me his hand as he reached across audience members to shake Sullivan’s, and leapt over bags and jackets in the aisles, never dropping character.

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Hellman and Sullivan are two of the sharpest actors in Chicago theater, and they are insanely good in this production. Their vocal work is spot on, playing with exaggerated dialects and wildly varied pitches, and their physical work is outstanding. Casting a man of Chris Sullivan‘s size as the ingenue Lady Enid is guaranteed funny, but Sullivan captures the femininity of the character so well that the humor is amplified. The same goes for Hellman, playing the maid Jane with a hilarious mix of dainty, dirty, and sassy. But what makes these actors so phenomenal is their commitment to the world of the play. Hellman is supposed to dust everything, and he dusts everything: chairs, flowers, walls, books, footlights. Sullivan is handed a Pringle at the end of the play and delivers the line "I have a Pringle" with such seriousness that the viewer can’t help but wonder the symbolic importance of the potato chip. And the aforementioned dulcimer duet is bizarre yet completely captivating; the entire house sat in awed silence until the absurdity of the situation awakened hysterical laughter.

A show like Irma Vep has a huge "How’d they do that?!" factor, and Graney answers any questions about how such a technically complex show is put together with an absolutely genius final scene. The actors take the stage for the last time, but they are joined by the backstage crew and the production’s most valuable player: the costume rack. As the two men tie up the loose ends of Ludlam’s ridiculous plot they switch between characters and costumes on stage, stripping away illusion and revealing the magic that goes on behind the scenes. It’s an amazing sequence that is further amplified by the actors’ commitment to their roles, juxtaposing the actor’s job of creating reality with the inherent artifice of theater that is being presented to the audience. It’s intelligent, it’s hilarious, it’s brilliant. And that is The Mystery of Irma Vep in a nutshell.

 

Rating: ★★★★

 

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 Creative Team

Sean Graney – Director
Jack Magaw – Scenic Designer
Alison Siple – Costume Designer
Heather Gilbert – Lighting Designer
MIchael Griggs – Sound Designer
Ellen Hay – Production Stage Manager
Sara Gammage – Stage Manager

Review: side project’s “Rewind

‘Rewind’: exquisite production, downer play

 

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The side project theatre company presents:

Rewind

By Laura Eason
Directed by Anna C. Bahow
Through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

“It wasn’t supposed to be this way. They were the next big thing in rock. But Noah walked away. Elisha married that asshole. And now Jim’s dead — leaving them all to wonder — ‘How did we get here?'”

Prod - Noah, Jim and Elisha - couch That spoiler comes straight out of promotions for Rewind, up-and-coming Chicago playwright Laura Eason’s new play, now in world-premiere by the side project, in Rogers Park, so I’m not giving anything away. The trouble with plays that start at the end is that they tend to lack suspense.

While the flashback can be an effective theatrical technique to fill audiences in on the back story, it can go too far. This play doesn’t flashback so much as reverse crawl.

Partly inspired by the playwright’s own experiences in Chicago’s indie music scene and influenced by the 1996 suicide of Jim Ellison, front man for the Chicago power pop trio Material Issue, Rewind begins in 1998, when the members of his onetime band, childhood friend Noah and ex-lover Elisha, find the body of Jim, a talented but troubled and unsuccessful songwriter and musician. Then the drama steps back — rewinds, get it? — through the threesome’s life to the band’s beginnings in 1981.

We wait for some startling revelation or inspiring moment, but none appear. What we get is an old, old story — familiar to anyone who knows anything about the music business: Talent is not enough; you also need perseverance, responsibility, belief in yourself and a good deal of luck.

As the play progresses backwards, we see the band’s deteriorating relationships; Jim’s insecurity over whether his music is really good enough; issues of personal loyalty vs. business expediency; troubles with their record label; their opportunistic manager; the bitter contrast of a younger musician achieving the success that’s eluded them; and, finally, their hopeful start. The depressing history of a million failed garage bands.

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Side project presents the play in its typically flawless way — perhaps unintentionally reinforcing the theme: Fine acting, an effective set and excellent staging and direction aren’t enough, either.

Chip Davis is suitably intense as Jim, and Zach Buell nicely expressive as his always-supportive pal, Noah. Cyd Blakewell plays the somewhat selfish Elisha with just the right blend of innocence and self-interest. Supporting actors Shane Kenyon and Brett Schneider do good work as well.

Sound Designer Misha Fiksel hunted out local music from the period (a pity it’s only used incidentally). Set Designer Annette Vargas dappled the 30-seat theater with bright spray-paint graffiti and hung the walls with colorful band posters from Chicago print house Screwball Press that list all local indie music spots of the period: Lounge Ax, Double Door, the Empty Bottle, the Aragon Ballroom.

The audience sits on two sides of the intimate stage, where Director Anna C. Bahow makes adept use of the few stage furnishings to convey 17 different scenes. She moves her cast in and out with exquisite pacing.

Yet although Rewind is performed without intermission in just 90 minutes, its utter predictability makes it seem much longer.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Note: Allow time to find street parking.