REVIEW: Pretty Penny (Right Brain Project)

Sexual appetite meets physical bodies – or vice-versa

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Right Brain Project presents:

Pretty Penny

by Randall Colburn

directed by Nathan Robbel

through March 20th (more info)

reviewed by Ian Epstein 

Having cabin fever? Then check out the brooding, close quarter’s production of Randall Colburn‘s Pretty Penny over at Right Brain Project instead – it’s an inappropriately intimate storefront variation on an increasingly common theme: the uncomfortable mixture of sexual appetite, physical bodies, and the tech-induced separation of the one from the other.

Pretty Penny_3Victoria (Katy Albert) is a mischief-prone, present-day Women’s Studies student. She decides to pick up twenty hours a week at a no-restrictions-whatsoever phone sex line operation. Jerry (Josh Sumner) owns and operates this wiry brothel.  He’s a would-be photographer but instead of making pictures he wound up taking them from other people, then mixing and matching them to someone else’s voice-for-hire. People on one end of the line pay for what’s repeatedly described as a fiction – a total fantasy. Meanwhile, Jerry’s employees, and Victoria in particular, fall dangerously into the allure of the fantastical, no-restrictions alter-egos.

Enter Crystal (Susan Myburgh), strutting. Crystal is a no nonsense model with the drive and perseverance it takes to succeed in the business of flesh and posing – so naturally there are some skeletons in her closet.  Namely, some lurid, pre-nose-job skeletons, erotic photos taken by Adam some ten years earlier. She’s also got a push-over boyfriend named Tommy (Nick Mikula) who lacks the courage or emotional flexibility to go down on one knee and make Crystal his fiancée.

Jerry, on the other hand, is a pretty keen, emotionless business operator.  And he wants to put those Crystal photos on the hot-line’s site. Crystal resists, then concedes and consents to become the face of Victoria’s fictional persona. Victoria has already seen the picture that is “her.”  She’s busy trying out voices and personalities like new clothes, settling eventually on a squealy, whimsical lilt she names “Penny.”

Early on, Colburn sets the forces in motion that will eventually bring Crystal and Victoria face to face.  He also sets this meeting up as one of those forbidden encounters, likely to cause a cataclysmic disturbance.

Pretty Penny_2 It’s a difficult, almost cruel journey for an audience set in the round and just feet from the actors.  Nathan Robbel‘s otherwise strong directing might’ve benefited from an arrangement that didn’t force audience members to deal with the script’s themes of flesh and disconnect in such hyper-focused, claustrophobic quarters.  Luckily, the actor’s are, on the whole, captivating, making it natural to watch them and their subtlest gestures.

Set and props are minimal to not at all – there’s a good bit of miming, which emphasized the play’s thematic focus on our awareness of bodies in digital and physical space.  Colburn’s script is strong, dipping equally into material that is comedic then, all of a sudden, disturbing.  But the real gem of this production is Katy Albert, whose playful ease makes her electric in the collapsing double role of Victoria/Penny.

There’s a lot of writhing around in dim light talking dirty on the phone to a sordid cast of characters in Pretty Penny, but the complexity and maturity of Colburn’s writing in the talented hands of Katy Albert make the show thoughtful and rewarding for those willing to stray into its otherwise dark territory.

Rating:  ★★½

If what you really wanna do is produce… Here’s a chance to pick the brains of the industry’s elite

goodmanSo you wanna be a producer? Mark the weekend of March 19 – 21 and plan on attending the Chicago Producing Intensive Conference   at the Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn. A $350 ticket ($275 for members of the League of Chicago Theatres) includes access to presentations and networking opportunities with a who’s who of heavy-hitter producers and  general managers from blockbuster shows in Chicago and on Broadway as well as national tours.

Presenters scheduled for the conference include  Tom Viertel, partner with Scorpio Entertainment  (A Little Night Music);   Allied Live Managing Partner Laura Matalon (Broadway’s Hair, Billy Elliot, Mama Mia and Legally Blonde,  among others);  Broadway in Chicago Vice President Eileen LaCarioJujamcyn Theatres Creative Director Jack Viertel;  Steppenwolf Theatre Executive Director David Hawkanson;  David Richards of Richards/Climan (general managers for Broadway’s  Blithe Spirit and All My Sons, among others) and Goodman Theatre Executive Director Roche Schulfer.

Presenters are slated to address audience development, script and story development and promotional strategies and marketing techniques, among others topics.

The conference is open to anyone interested in producing, co-producing or investing in the theater, be it in Chicago, New York or for national tours. Aspiring general managers and investors are also invited.  Program planners say the weekend will be of special interest to anyone exploring relationships between the for-profit and not-for-profit sectors in the development of a theater project.

The Commercial Theater Institute, now in its 29th year, is a project of Theatre Development Fund (TDF) and The Broadway League, Inc. Dedicated to training the next generation of commercial theatre producers, CTI strives to provide resources and guidance to people interested in creating commercial productions for the stage.

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REVIEW: Living Quarters (Strangeloop Theatre)

This gem is exquisitely polished

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Strangeloop Theatre presents:

Living Quarters

 

by Brian Friel
directed by Thomas Murray
through March 14th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Thomas Murray is a long time scholar of Brian Friel, the Irish playwright best known in America for Dancing at Lughnasa. The Mid-America Theatre Conference named him an Emerging Scholar for his research on Friel. How happy for Chicago’s theater community that his turn as director crafts the subtle and balanced execution of an earlier, more experimental play of Friel’s, Living Quarters: after Hippolytus, now at Trap Door Theatre. Small and simply produced by Strangeloop Theatre, it is the very definition of excellence.

living-quarter Written in 1977, Friel ventured away from overtly political theater toward using meta-theatrical devices and non-linear storytelling. Through Sir (Jillian Rafa), the play’s own deconstructionist, the drama examines a critical day in the life of an Irish family. Living Quarters shows strong Chekhovian influences. Murray’s superbly balanced cast transposes the shifts from action to reflection on the action with all the smoothness of liquid silk, making the transitions seem effortless and familiar.

Commandant Frank Butler (James Houton) is being honored at the pinnacle of his military career—a career that, more often than not, absented him far from family life. Daughter Helen (Danni Smith), returning from her life in London, joins sisters Tina (Kelley Minneci) and Miriam (Kathryn Bartholomew) in preparations for the big day. Their estranged and somewhat derelict brother, Ben (Martin Monahan), also rejoins the family in celebration, while the deconstructive storytelling unveils to the audience his illicit affair with his father’s new, young wife Anna (Shannon Bracken).

In the course of reviewing precarious family dynamics, the play floods with memories–joyous, convivial memories and, inevitably, dark and regretful ones. Heavy among these are the family’s memories of the commandant’s former wife, a strict and exacting invalid with a severe case of class prejudice. Past incidents between Ben, Helen, and their mother reverberate into the present, demonstrating their power to renew long buried pain. Smith especially shows adept grace at portraying deep filial love, while suggesting a sensitive and fragile mentality underneath.

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As the betrayed commandant, Houton is nothing less than profound and immaculately precise. Besotted by the freshness of his young wife, soaring jovially in his hour of glory, the revelation of his son’s cuckoldry brings him down like Icarus. His performance is perfectly complemented by Paul Tinsley’s warm and friendly family alcoholic, the Chaplin, Father Tom. Friel’s politics still manifest themselves in his subtle digs at these two pillars of Irish society, but they are humanely tempered by each and every character’s mournful wish for things to have happened differently.

Plus, even the most tragic families have their happy moments. Friel places these in shimmering contrast to the sorrowful ones and Strangeloop’s production follows that delicate silver thread like Gospel. Much like Eugene O’Neill’s work, Living Quarters is a paean to regret—only Friel’s lighter touch makes us realize how deeply regret is colored by time and memory. So whose memories are these, anyway–set down, note by note, in the book Sir carries around onstage? The question hangs suspended in the air like a cloud, like a moment of grief that won’t go away.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

Featuring: Kathryn Bartholomew, Shannon Bracken, Ross Compton, James Houton, Kelley Minneci, Martin Monahan, Jillian Rafa, Danni Smith and Paul Tinsley.

With scenic design by Glen Anderson, costumes and props by D.J. Reed, lighting by Leigh Barrett and sound by Jesus Contreras.

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REVIEW: Noises Off (Theatre at the Center)

You gotta have heart

 

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Theatre at the Center presents:

Noises Off

by Michael Frayn
directed by
William Pullinsi
Theatre at the Center, Munster
through March 21st (more info)

Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Noises Off, by Michael Frayn, is one of the most popular farces of all time, concerning a traveling play whose actor’s backstage antics are so outrageous that they can’t get through a performance without a totally zany mishap. It is a regional theatre favorite because of its light-as-a-feather demeanor and broad appeal, and audiences love the wacky English humor. Theatre at the Center’s production, directed by Artistic Director William Pullinsi, hits all noisesoff1the right marks in this fast-paced, technically demanding play, but loses a little heart amidst the hubbub on stage.

It’s a show that relies on physical props: phones ringing, opening and closing doors, putting props in exactly the right place every time, and it’s a pleasure to marvel at the athleticism of the actors when they pull it off. Just hitting those marks consistently is amazing work, and Pullinsi’s staging is masterfully organized and effective.

The humanity in these performances, however, is lacking. Everything in this show is done correctly, but sitting in the audience I barely cracked a smile. Too much focus has been placed on the technical proficiency here, and not enough as been paid to acting. During the crazy second act – the funniest, wildest scene in the show – there are times when one can’t even tell actors Jeff Cummings and Clay Sanderson apart because their relationships and characters are so muddled. The women had an easier time of distinguishing themselves. Laura E. Taylor and Anna Hammonds are both charming as rival love interests for the hotshot director played by hit-or-miss Will Clinger. But if one is to choose the show’s standout performance, it is no doubt the stage manager, Rebecca Green, whose role job includes calling sound and light cues, props placement and basically running the entire show.

One crew member who is sorely missed in this production is a dialect coach. The English dialects are awful across the board in this show, to the point that they are distracting and embarrassing. The life of noisesoff3an English accent in this play is more exciting than the life of any of the characters: it travels across the world and becomes a New York accent, and then Dutch, and then maybe a little Italian and then it falls off completely, only to return when you least expect it. These are extremely competent actors, with a list of Jeff awards and nominations among them, and yet, not one of them makes it through this show without sounding like they have marbles in their mouth at one point or another.

The adept physicality of the ensemble is notable, and director William Pullinsi knows exactly what what Noises Off should look like. It’s a great show for children and theatre newbies because it lays out, in an entertaining manner, just what a play should look like.  But the more seasoned theatre-goer might want to stay clear of this production. Hey, you gotta have heart, even in the silliest of farces.

 

Rating: ★★

 

EXTRA-CREDIT: Check out pics from the opening night reception. Looks like they’re having a well-deserved good time.

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REVIEW: Abigail’s Party (A Red Orchid Theatre)

“Let’s get pissed!”

abigail

A Red Orchid Theatre presents:

Abigail’s Party

by Mike Liegh
directed by Shade Murray
through March 28th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Suburban popularity hinges on repressed emotions. Irritating neighbors are tolerated and marital woes are hidden all in the name of keeping up appearances, but what happens when the inhibitions that keep these feelings in check are removed? Hilarity ensues.

abigail_home The year is 1977 and Beverly (Kirsten Fitzgerald) is waiting for her husband Laurence (Larry Graham) to arrive with lagers before guests arrive for a cocktail party. Cheesy pineapple bites have been set, the fiber light has been switched on, and the hostess is grooving to Donna Summer’s “Love To Love You Baby” while sipping a gin and tonic. A few houses down, punk rock teenager Abigail is throwing a party of her own, but the real action is about to begin in the Moss’s living room, the setting of Mike Leigh’s hilarious Abigail’s Party at A Red Orchid Theatre, exquisitely directed by Shade Murray.

Angela (Mierka Girten ) and Tony (Danny McCarthy), newcomers to the neighborhood, arrive first, followed by Susan (Natalie West), the title character’s divorced mother. Drinks are poured as small talk begins, the men discuss cars, the women furniture, and all is pleasant and respectable. This picturesque gathering quickly develops cracks in its facade as drinks are topped up and people become looser with their tongues, revealing the problems that lie under the surface.

Leigh’s script was largely developed through actor improvisations, and the evidence is apparent in the dialogue. Characters check in with their listeners to make sure they are paying attention, and at one point two completely different conversations are happening at the same time, a rare occurrence on stage but something that can be heard at any party. The rhythm of the dialogue moves at a clipped pace that intensifies as drinks are poured, but the actors never become caricatures of inebriation.

Alcohol is the medium through which awkwardness flows in the play, and Fitzgerald’s Beverly is the main instigator. She jumps at the chance to criticize Angela’s makeup once the men are away, openly mocks her husband, and in the play’s most uncomfortable moment gets a little too intimate with Tony. “A little row adds sparkle to a relationship,” isn’t just something she says, but something she lives by, and her abhorrent behavior is a way to garner an emotional response from the lifeless Laurence. Beverly mirrors Abigail’s party, becoming more invasive in the lives of those around her as her neighbor’s punk rock grows louder, disrupting her perfect evening.

Fitzgerald may be the life of the party, but her supporting cast doesn’t play second fiddle. Graham’s Laurence may be a square, but he matches his wife’s aggression when threatened, and his intellectual nature serves as a great foil to Beverly’s vivacity. Girten is hilarious as wide-eyed doormat Angela and McCarthy is appropriately brutish in his mostly silent role. West essentially reprises her role of Crystal from Roseanne but with a British accent, and while primarily serving to drive the plot forward, Susan becomes the play’s most relatable character. Watching in horror as suburban drama unfolds before her eyes, she is an audience member on the other side of the curtain: sober, shocked, and completely in awe.

Rating: ★★★½

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