Sunday Sondheim: Ah, But Underneath – from Follies

 

Dee Hoty takes off all of her clothes in concert version of Sondheim’s Follies.

REVIEW: Gimme Change (3EyedMonster Theatre)

To have and have naught

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3EyedMonster Theatre Company presents
 
Gimme Change: 3 short plays on homelessness
 
Written by Conor Woods, Joe Kwaczala and Megan O’Donoghue
Directed by Conor Woods, Megan O’Donohue, Bill DiPiero
at
Stage Left Theatre, 3408 N. Sheffield (map)
through May 8th  |  tickets: $10  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Three short plays, one topic—that’s the promise of 3EyedMonster, a new theater company delivering fresh new drama by young playwrights on current issues. Since its overall goal is to “invite active discussion,” Conor Woods – company founder, playwright, and actor – can take special satisfaction in achieving this goal. Gimme Change: three short plays on homelessness offers youthful energy and curbd4 perspective to a bear on a world-weary subject, fraught with all sorts of misconceptions and misdirection. The level of skill demonstrated by the production’s playwright cohort, which includes Woods, Joe Kwaczala and Megan O’Donoghue, shows surprising clarity, audacity, and sometimes just downright sophistication. The young cast not only keeps up with the material, but also invests the full expression of theatricality into its subject.

CURB’d, written and directed by Conor Woods, reveals layers of presumptions about homelessness through presenting the kind of discussion one recalls from college days. Three students, fulfilling a class assignment, sit on the sidewalk as panhandlers awaiting passers-by to donate a measly dollar to their kitty. What first seems like an easy assignment drags on interminably and the students reveal to each other their preconceptions about homelessness, poverty, and the best ways to get money from strangers. Each character also reveals their personal prejudices about each other in a sparring match over which is the best way to address homelessness. On the whole, CURB’d is an excellent introduction piece for the whole cycle, enough to cover typical misinformation about homelessness and begin investigations into one’s personal prejudices regarding poverty, the giving and receiving of money, and the importance of appearances. But the 25-minute format cannot cover all this and allow development for substantive characters. Woods must reach into the usual grab bag of student   stereotypes—which aren’t wholly wrong, just thin. Drew (Drew McElligott), Patricia (Megan O’Donoghue), and Brian (Mike Anderson) don’t get to evolve past acerbic accusation, whiny pontification, and dry, diffident noncommitment. Brian provides appropriate comic relief to Drew and Patricia’s self-involved battle, but the three-step dance between them begins to feel formulaic after 15 minutes.

standpoint2Standpoint by Joe Kwaczala is a performance art piece reminiscent of the 90s. Its dippy twists and turns address, and provide escapist diversion from, the subject of homelessness. Performing his own piece, but directed by Bill DiPiero, Kwaczala begins at the end; receiving over-the-top accolades for a performance we have not seen. Then he leaps into the cyclical performance. It’s a moment of self-congratulatory obsession that echoes the defenses used by some to avoid dire social conditions. Some of Kwaczala’s best moments are deeply inspired. Such as when he engages in parody of a character that thinks dealing with homelessness is “not that hard. You can get a job; it’s not that hard. You can get a shower; it’s not that hard . . .”—all the while putting sticks of gum into his mouth, one after the other, until the character can hardly speak for the globular mass that has accumulated. Here we have self-absorption, lack of awareness, lack of compassion, and perpetual consumption captured in a rapid-fire minute. Kwaczala’s piece suggests we can all be entertained and diverted from the stark reality of homelessness, even while being sent an engaging message about homelessness—from artists trying to reach people through entertainment on a subject that is anything but. Kwaczala moves quickly and lyrically through character after character, moment after diverting, humorous moment on the hypocrisy of  addressing homelessness in this way. However, what the piece needs now is a strong editing hand to “sharpen its message.” Sorry, but perpetual distraction from the subject of homelessness is, well, distracting and also soon becomes playinghouse2boring. One wonders how much further Kwaczala could develop his theme by focusing on what we cannot be distracted from regarding homelessness—namely, the fear of being in dire poverty ourselves one day.

Playing House by Megan O’Donoghue is the most successful of all three plays. It succeeds in exploring levels of truly comprehensive desperation around homelessness. Also, the pure theatricality of the work offers profound contemplation on creation and destruction in the reality of homeless children’s lives. A homeless girl and boy employ diverting play to pass the time while waiting for some parent (one hopes) to return and feed them. Among the detritus of their living space, they find old clothes for dress up and soon enact dialogue between a homeless woman (Meghan Hartmann) and a “rich bitch cunt” (Conor Woods) who looks down on her homeless condition. What follows is the kind of honest and humorous exchange one wishes would occur between have and have not. Woods gets to slay with lines like, “Betty Ford didn’t become homeless when she was addicted,” and “I voted for Obama because of people like you.” Hartman herself lays into the best homeless rant I have ever heard in literature, movies or theater. But even more, the children, through utterly engaged imagination, create a momentary release from homelessness that turns out to be as fragile as their prospects for survival. The other works may be clever, thoughtful pieces that can provoke dialogue, but they depend on the triptych for resonance. Playing House is not just a message, but also true, fully realized drama and can stand on its own.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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REVIEW: Ten Unknowns (Will Act for Food)

No great truths revealed

 

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Will Act for Food presents
 
Ten Unknowns
 
By Jon Robin Baitz
Directed by
Scott Pasko, assisted by Sally LaRowe
Athenaeum Theatre, Studio 1, 2936 N. Southport Ave. (map)
Through May 29  |  Tickets: $20; $15 with food donation  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Jon Robin Baitz’s Ten Unknowns, now in Chicago premiere from Will Act for Food, debuted in 2001, and it’s set in 1992, but it feels even older, dated, like something out of the 1970s. I thought we’d got beyond gratuitous nude scenes and endless yelling about exploitation and the debasement of culture.

Its Lincoln Center premiere received handsome reviews, so possibly this complex drama fit better into 2001 than it does into 2010, or perhaps that production simply overcame the script’s flaws. Scott Pasko’s interpretation seems fine, though, and the cast does well, so I think the play has just not aged well.

The nature of art, the relationship of art and commerce, the roles of assistants vs. collaborators, the personal weaknesses of artists, generation gaps, homosexuality, ecology, the 10-unknowns-croppedugliness of American culture … Baitz packs all this and more, in rising volume, into his very talky story about a drunken old failure of a painter and three young people who come into his life without any understanding of where he’s come from.

Malcolm Raphelson, hailed as a promising figurative artist when his work featured as part of the 1949 exhibition "Ten Unknowns," soon vanished into obscurity with the rise of abstract impressionism. In 1963, he exiled himself to rural Mexico, mescal and a mean existence. Dennis Newport‘s gravel-voiced portrayal dances from grim bemusement to naughty charm to raw power, although he often seems too vigorous for a 75-year-old man who’s been living in a bottle most of three decades.

When some of Raphelson’s work surfaces to acclaim, New York art dealer Trevor Fabricant believes time is ripe for a retrospective and a lucrative comeback. He sends his own young assistant and sometime lover Judd Sturgess down to work with Raphelson and help him create some new work. When the dealer comes down to view the results and arrange the showing, however, the painter resists.

The polished but uptight Fabricant, for unaccountable reasons, is from South Africa (Baitz’s boyhood home). That’s distracting — not only because Ben Veatch, otherwise nicely smarmy, mangles the accent — and detracts from the Ugly American theme the rest of the play projects.

Judd, talented and anxious to learn from the older artist, is a junkie. Neil Huff, brimming with attitude, does his best to create a character but the script gives him little to build on. His rants and revelations seem to come out of nowhere.

Meanwhile, Raphelson picks up an unlikely fourth for this quartet, Julia Bryant, a Berkeley biology student researching nearly extinct frogs. Rachel Neuman‘s pretty, perky, wholesome Julia contrasts beautifully with the tormented and arty bunch — at least until the unraveling second act, when Judd loses it, Raphelson gives in, and Julia reveals her dark past and the rest of herself, too.

 
 
Rating: ★★½