REVIEW: A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant (Next Theatre)

Limited Direction Hampers “…Scientology Pageant”

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Next Theatre presents:

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant

By Kyle Jarrow
Concept by Alex Timbers
directed by Kathryn Walsh
thru January 3rd, 2010 (ticket info)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

The boxy proscenium studio theater space at Next Theatre creates challenges for any of its productions. It produces visual perspectives that tend toward the two-dimensional and contained. One would think that wouldn’t necessarily detract from a satire qua children’s pageant. Yet the set design (Grant Sabin) for Next’s seasonal production, A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientology Pageant, is strikingly flat and unimaginative. Kathyrn Walsh’s direction stays contentedly—and without irony–within its confines, for the most part stationing the pageant’s child actors on three-tiered risers that further distance audience from performance.

It is the staging that dulls the tooth of this anti-religious-scam slam fest. Children re-enacting with absolute earnestness the life of L. Ron Hubbard, the modern prophet of Scientology, is a premise with Wildean potential. But, for all it’s self-touted edginess, in close collaboration with the show’s Obie award winning creator, Kyle Jarrow, Next has pulled its punches and stayed closer to conventional home.

Awkward scene changes and uneven pacing fragment the ensemble cast’s cohesiveness. Interestingly, it is cohesiveness they energetically demonstrate while cutting loose during some of the musical numbers, throwing in acrobatic abandon for good measure. Jennifer Baker, Sara Geist, and Nicole Rudakova project performances that stand out from the constrictions with which they must contend. Also, Jason Krause ably plays L. Ron Hubbard, pulling off smug self-satisfaction and the cravat-and-blazer look with natural ease.

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Several new songs have been introduced as products of collaboration between Jarrow and Next Theatre’s Artistic Director Jason Southerland. While one song lends a softer, more humanizing tone to the process individuals within Scientology may go through, the rest don’t radically alter the message or style of the show, nor do they have to. The amount of satire that any religion can take should be directly proportional to the money it makes.

Rating: ★★½

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REVIEW: Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer

Definitely not your father’s Rudolph

From left- Yukon Cornelia meets runaways Rudolph and Herbie (in Hell in a Handbag's Ruolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer. Photo credit- Rick Aguilar

Hell in a Handbag Productions presents:

Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer

 

Book and Lyrics by David Cerda
Music by David Cerda with Scott Lamberty
Directed by
Derek Czaplewski
At
Mary’s Attic (5400 N. Clark Street) thru January 2nd (ticket info)

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

From left- Rudolph, Yukon, and Herbiesee the Island of Misfit Toys in the distance in Hell in a Handbag's Ruolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer.Photo by Rick Aguilar A red panty-wearing reindeer, a boozy hag Mrs. Claus, and an elf with dental aspirations: two of these three character traits weren’t apparent in the traditional holiday classic. Hell in a Handbag Productions presents Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer, a parody on the children’s television show “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The campy story tells the struggles of Rudolph (Alex Grelle), a transvestite reindeer born to wear Chanel silk in a J.C. Penney overalls world. In its 12th year, David Cerda has updated his Christmas town misfits’ story with topical jokes about Michael Jackson, the Catholic Church and healthcare. Cerda has unwrapped his imagination to create back stories for the residents of Christmas Town: a pedophile reindeer coach, a tyrant money-hungry Santa, enslaved go-go dancing elves, and a cosmetic surgery drag-queen victim as the snow beast. Not quite the hot-cocoa-by-the-fireplace-on-a-snowy-evening, this Rudolph is more like tequila shots at the bar on a bitter cold night.

In any Hell in a Handbag production, Ed Jones transforms his small supporting role into huge laughs. As a drunken Mrs. Claus, Jones’ facial expressions are hysterical. Joined by Rudolph, Herbie (Chris Walsh), and Clarice (Jennifer Shine), Jones’ quartet belts out the catchy tune “Christmas Makes Me Bitter.” It’s the perfect melody for holiday commercialism burn-outs. The witty combination of the television show’s familiar moments mixed with the dark and disturbing create a warped alternative to the “It’s a Wonderful Life” crowd. Walsh (no relation) nails Herbie the elf in pitch and robotic movement. From the moment she steps on the stage, Lori Lee (Yukon Cornelia) becomes a hilarious version of the simpleton prospector. Her traveling destination song “I Don’t Know” is an amusing rendition of an Abbott-Costello ‘who’s on first’.

From left- Santa Claus, loses patience with flamboyant Rudolph as Score the Elf looks on in horror in Hell in a Handbag's Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer. Photo by Rick Aguilar The greedy capitalist, Santa Claus, threatens one of his elves ( to work faster or suffer the consequences in Hell in a Handbag Productions 'Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer' at Mary's Attic. Photo by Rick Aguilar-

Over the last several years, I’ve made three trips to Cerda’s Christmas Town. Like Christmas cookies, I like to sample all of them but I have my favorites. This production comes in third with some awkward pauses. It’s unclear if it’s new material or new actors mixing with veterans. Regardless, Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer is still a great escape from songs like “I’ll Have a Blue Christmas Without You” for the more realistic sentiment “They’ll Hate You If You’re Different.” The 2009 version may not be my favorite but it’s still a tasty holiday treat.

 

Rating: ★★★

 
Herbie, the 'not gay enough ' elf that has dreams of dentistry in Hell in a Handbag Production's Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer opening Dec. 5 at Mary's Attic. Photo by Rick Aguilar Score, the not so bright elf in Hell in a Handbag's Rudolph The Red-Hosed Reindeer. Photo by Rick Augilar

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REVIEW: Goodman Theatre’s “A Christmas Carol”

Get ready to love Christmas!

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Goodman Theatre presents:

 A Christmas Carol

By Charles Dickens
Adapted by Tom Creamer
Directed by
William Brown
thru December 31st (ticket info)

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Pictured in Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, directed by William Brown are (top to bottom) Penelope Walker (Ghost of Christmas Present), John Babbo (Ignorance) and Caroline Heffernan (Want).If you’re not filled with the holiday spirit yet, you will be after Goodman’s A Christmas Carol.  Now in its 30th year, Charles Dickens‘ tale of redemption is brought to life by an all-star cast of Chicago talent, creating a emotional journey through one man’s mistakes that will resonate long after the curtain goes down.

This year’s production begins with a beautiful medley of holiday songs that immediately establishes the idea that Ebeneezer Scrooge (Larry Yando) detests: Christmas brings warmth and calm to a cold, chaotic world. But happiness is not profitable, and the great Yando plays an excellent curmudgeon in the opening scenes. Hunched over books of number and growling at charity workers, he is the portrait of loneliness. Yando begins to transform as he is shown visions of the past and present, and almost immediately the images awaken feelings that have been long buried. A scene between young Scrooge (Andy Truschinski) and his fiancee Belle (Jessie Mueller) is particularly heartbreaking because of the dedication Yando brings to his attempts to change the events that have shaped (destroyed?) him. The journey through his past tortures him, but he cannot escape viewing his own actions – the ultimate punishment. The pain of these moments is heightened by the contrast between the nature of the prison and the characterizations of the jailers: the Ghosts of Christmas Past (Alex Weisman) and Present (Penelope Walker).

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Weisman, fresh off a Jeff award win for Timeline Theatre’s The History Boys, looks like he is having the time of his life as he flies across the stage, and his jolly nature is a great fit for the early moments of Scrooge’s past, especially the Christmas party at Fezziwig’s. Walker is beautiful in a massive gold and red gown, and she sprinkles glitter with ebullient laughter that forces a smile out of the coldest hearts. As Scrooge’s memories sour, so do his tour guides. The aforementioned scene between Scrooge and Belle stifles the gleeful fire that burns in Weisman, and as Walker reveals the disdain Scrooge’s peers have toward him, as well as the troubles they themselves face, she becomes an almost malevolent force. A scene where she introduces Scrooge to the two children that represent Ignorance and Want, crawling out from beneath her garment to maximum dramatic effect, is particularly haunting, and the perfect introduction to the most terrifying of Dickens’ heralds: the Ghost of Christmas Future. Major props to the Goodman design team for creating the horrifically huge puppet for this last ghost, giving the spirit an overwhelming dreadfulness.

ChristmasCarol-5 The supporting cast impresses, balancing the community’s spite toward Scrooge with the good cheer of the holiday season. The Cratchit family is the heart of the show, and Ron Rains brings a wonderful caring energy as the patriarch Bob, always showing respect to his cruel boss. The scenes in the Cratchit household are brimming with love between husband and wife, parent and child, and actor and script. Fiercely committed, the actors have found the beauty in their misfortune, making Tiny Tim’s (John Francis Babbo) death in the future all the more tragic.

While sadness and loss are major factors of Dickens’ tale, Goodman’s production is filled with humor and moments of pure glee. The party at Fezziwig’s is positively rollicking and Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s (Matt Schwader) Christmas dinner is a joyful celebration filled with music and laughter. Where the show is most successful, though, is in the final moments when Scrooge vows to redeem himself, and Yando skips, jumps, and laughs his way into the hearts of the audience, a humbug no more.

 

Rating: ★★★½

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REVIEW: Raven Theatre’s “Patchwork USA”

Patchwork USA Provides Simply Told Stories

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Raven Theatre presents:

Patchwork USA

by Michael Menendian and Eugene Fern
directed by
Michael Menendian
thru December 13th (ticket info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Probably no other children’s show this season is as simply produced as Patchwork USA, a world premiere from Raven Theatre’s Children’s Program, directed by Michael Menendian. Based on short children’s stories by Menendian and Eugene Fern, no frills sets, props, and costumes mean greater demands from the actors in terms of basic, direct storytelling for their very young audiences.

All of the actors provide accessible and approachable performances to encourage audience participation. McNeil and Sanchez particularly soon found favorites among children who regularly responded to questions designed to engage them in the characters’ dilemmas. Esteban Cruz stands out in his ability to animate his storytelling with enthusiasm and mischievous humor. His Lil’ Devil from “How I Love to Read” is especially memorable, as is the young boy from “The Happiest Day of My Life” who lives in anticipation of his first professional baseball game.

All stories fulfill the children’s program mission to instill an appreciation of differences in others, whether those differences refer to ethnic background, ability, or self-expression. The overall tone is one of building basic respect for one’s fellows, a tender blossom that can be easily run over in the holiday rush. This children’s show provides a real alternative for families looking for more wholesome entertainment this season.

Some stories may still benefit from further development. Perhaps reconsidering the story-within-a-story framework for some tales would provide more accessibility for its intended audience. If anything, more engagement, not less should be encouraged.

Rating: ★★½