REVIEW: Bristol Renaissance Faire (Kenosha)

 joustercharge

   
Renaissance Entertainment Productions presents
   
Bristol Renaissance Faire
   
12550 120th Avenue, Kenosha, WI  (map)
Weekends thru September 6th, 10am-7pm
Tickets: $9-$20, $3 for parking |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

If all the world’s a stage, the Bristol Renaissance Faire is one huge play. Everyone who visits it instantly becomes a part of the pageant if not the drama. Now in its fourth decade, this gargantuan historical fantasy, defying its name, celebrates the past–from the Middle Ages through the 17th century. This very imaginative, sprawling village [#Beginning of Shooting Data Section]
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fair conflates Renaissance revelry, knightly jousts, courtly dances honoring Gloriana (Elizabeth I) and her new suitor, the Duc d’Anjou, and the 200 skilled craftsmen who create blown glass, heraldic shields, alchemy, horoscopes, dulcimers, leatherwork, pottery, Tudor tapestries – and Budweiser. It all happens in a richly wooded glade that could easily pass for an English hamlet if you don’t look too hard at the signage that surrounds you on all sides.

Straddling the state line (just off Interstate 94), Bristol’s blast from the past is nothing if not theatrical, even scripted. Elizabeth’s flirtatious courtship with her “French frog” wooer (you’ll hear a lot of Francophobic mutterings as you converse with her courtiers) is as choreographed as the pavanes, galliards, corantos, and passepieds performed in her palatial patio. Drummers pound their skins in scary synchronicity. The speeches at the daily tournament are carefully rehearsed, as any state occasion would require.

But there’s audience interaction too as mud beggars hustle the crowd or sassy braggarts encourage patrons (often themselves festooned in historical costumes) to hurl ripe tomatoes at their insulting pusses. The carnival-style booths provide small-scale contests in archery and hatchet throwing. The signature performances this year include the riotously funny Swordsmen (Doug Mumaw and David Woolley), the delightful New Minstrel players, Adam Winrich’s fire whipping show, a Kid’s Kingdom that features “Cutlass Cooking” classes, Moonie the Magnificent’s juggling and ropewalking, a Punch and Judy puppet show, a demonstration of the royal falcon’s predatory prowess, even a lesson in Tudor etiquette at Lady Ettie’s Tea Time.

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But the biggest show among these delightful distractions is the daily joust for the favor of Elizabeth. In a field of glory, armored knights on horseback practice feats of equestrian daring in order to be narrowed down to two valiant warriors (one a crowd-mocking villain). These mounted athletes will move from wielding spears while on saddles to slashing swords when finally on their feet. As full of false bluster as any championship wrestling match, it all ends, two hours later, with a daily duel to the death (the apparent horror of which I was lucky enough to miss seeing).

My last visit to the Faire was two decades ago–so I was unprepared for how much it had expanded under the new ownership of Renaissance Entertainment Productions that took over in 1990. There’s now a swordsmenRenaissance ship permanently docked at a man-made pond, two elephants available for riding, an absolutely irresistible petting zoo, and at least five stages for itinerant musicians, hucksters, buskers, fops, and acrobats. Strangely, considering the periods covered, I saw no wandering nuns, monks, friars or jesters but perhaps they had time-traveled to a different entertainment on opening weekend. A glaring but very useful anachronism is the RenQuest, the Faire’s live action fantasy-play game that tests role-playing skills in all three dimensions. This year’s final chapter of “The Bloodtharken Trilogy” completes the story of the struggle between the brave and noble order of the Sun and the chaotic and dangerous Lunar Tribe.

As much as American Players Theatre further north, the Bristol Renaissance Faire also provides a worthy service by giving Chicago and local actors and street performers half a summer of semi-gainful employment and, better yet for future reference, exposure of their crafts, skills and styles. But that’s what a fair is supposed to do as it markets the past to the future.

For information call www.RenFair.com or call 847-395-7773.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

REVIEW: The Emperor’s New Clothes (Chicago Shakes)

A fun and exciting new family musical

 

emperor's new clothes - entire cast

   
Chicago Shakespeare Theater  presents
 
The Emperor’s New Clothes
   
Book by David Holstein
Music/Lyrics by
Alan Schmuckler
Directed by
Rachel Rockwell
at
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Navy Pier (map)
through August 29th  |  tickets: $18-$23  |  more info

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

emperor's new clothesThe Emperor’s New Clothes, the classic children’s fable, has been fancifully modernized by Chicago Shakespeare Theater, who commissioned a new musical based on the Hans Christian Anderson story with music and lyrics by Alan Schmuckler and book by David Holstein

In the original tale, the Emperor is sold an outfit made out of what he believes to be invisible fabric. He is told that only intelligent people can see it, so, not wanting to be  thought foolish, he pretends that he sees clothing where there is none. All of his royal servants and most of the townspeople go along with him, not wanting to be called stupid. Finally, a child watching the Emperor walk by, calls out that the Emperor is not wearing anything at all. All of the people in the town get a real kick out of this, and the Emperor is humiliated. 

The Emperor’s New Clothes at Chicago Shakespeare begins with the same basic premise, but blends the classic fairy tale themes with modern conundrums. Sam (Megan Long), the Emperor’s idealistic, college bound daughter, wants her father to get over his materialistic obsession with clothes, and open his eyes to the plight of the peasants. Meanwhile, Kimberly (Alex Goodrich), the son of Mama Swindler (Anne Gunn) the corruptible seamstress of the infamous invisible garments sees a better solution to save their failing business: e-commerce. Debbie Baer’s costumes continue the motif of mixing old and new: Mama wears a brown skirt and bodice while Sam walks around in jeans and a hoodie.  Kevin Depinet’s set is perfectly gaudy and extravagant. Its neon green and bright fuchsia paisley patterns are a whimsical fantasy, and the beautifully conceptualized and crafted set pieces create an engaging aesthetic.

emperor's new clothes4

Directed by Rachel Rockwell, whose recent production of Ragtime (our review ★★★★) was a smash hit at Drury Lane last spring, knows her way around a musical – to put it lightly – and her youthful, feminine energy infuses the entire show. One of her strong suits with family theater is pacing. She keeps the story flowing in a lyrical and fluid way. Actors enter through the aisles and from the wings, and the choreography (also by Rockwell) has the same bouncy, young and fun energy as the rest of the show.

emperor's new clothes3 Alan Schmuckler’s poppy music is up-tempo and vivacious. His music maintains a steady lively pace throughout the show, keeping the production constantly engaging.

Ultimately, the play is a new take on an old fable. Hans Christian Anderson’s classic story has a moral at the end. We learn from it that we must speak our minds and use our common sense. This new version, with its parent/child conflicts, is a more complicated story for a newer, more astute family audience. Simplistic moral punch lines won’t work for today’s children, who have been raised on a diet of television and film that allow them to explore a deeper array of human emotion without necessarily trying to teach them anything. I wouldn’t say that there is no moral to this new imagining of The Emperor’s New Clothes, but I would say that it takes its time getting there, and the moral comes out of an exploration of the character’s relationships. The Emperor’s New Clothes is a fun and exciting new family musical.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: Escape from Happiness (Infamous Commonwealth)

Uneven production still allows for entertaining conclusion

 

Infamous Commonwealth Escape for Happiness Press Photo 2

   
Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents
   
Escape From Happiness
   
Written by George F. Walker
Directed by
Genevieve Thompson
at the
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through August 8th  |  tickets:  $15-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

I am not an elderly person. But I’m not completely cool with starting an almost 3-hour show at 8:30, which is the case with Infamous Commonwealth’s Escape from Happiness by Canadian George F. Walker. The major problem with that almost 3-hour show is that it drags, so when I walked at around 11:20 it felt like it was much later.

Starting-time aside, the production isn’t without merit. Although the laughs dip, Walker’s black comedy has some extremely funny moments. The play throws the audience into the thickets of a very dysfunctional family, but one where all the progeny visit often. Escape from happiness posterEveryone, from mom to dad to the trio of sisters, have their little neuroses and quirks, a few worse than others. A product of the early-90’s obsession with petty crime, slacker philosophy, and guns, Escape from Happiness is a chapter in a cycle set in Walker’s old neighborhood in Toronto. There are several untangled knots tied in the plot that make it feel like a link in a chain instead of its own complete whole. There’s an occasional focus on vigilantism and mention of how awful the surrounding neighborhood is, but those points don’t mesh well with the rest of the familial-centered story. Walker stretches his characters and world too far and too thinly for us to really clamp onto any one character. The focus moves from sister to sister without choosing a protagonist. Reeling, complicated family dramas can be brilliant (August: Osage County, anyone?), but Walker just can’t keep our interest going for all his characters throughout the course of the play.

The mission of Infamous Commonwealth is to visibly envelope themselves in one theme each season. The concentration this year is redemption, which is a pretty obvious theme in the play, directed by Genevieve Thompson. Tom (Jim Farrell), the father, is infested with mental illness and shunned and despised by over half his immediate family. The problem is that his past sins didn’t seem worthy of such acidic hate, a failing of writing and direction. Mom (Barbara Anderson) seems to live in willful obliviousness to everything, and the three sisters pick sides and pick on each other. All of the in-fighting is framed within a story about small-time dealers and crooked cops, an external disturbance which feels forced.

The cast has a hard time connecting and building off of each other. Anderson, especially, feels fundamentally false, going through rehearsed motions instead of breathing life into the character. She plays at the crazy and ends up feeling safe. She’s joined by several supporting cast members, like Anne Sheridan Smith and Joe Ciresi, who don’t listen to the other actors on-stage.

Infamous Commonwealths Escape for Happiness Press Photo

As the youngest sister and the focus of the first chunk of the story, Whitney Hayes is fine. The character just becomes increasingly boring and unimportant, and Hayes has much less to do after intermission. The real glue that keeps this show together is Nancy Friedrich as the clingy middle sister, Mary Ann. She has a schizophrenic monologue in the middle of the play that is the funniest thing in the production. She’s mousey and prone to rambling, nailing Walker’s sense of humor. Unfortunately, she functions as a bit part for most of the production. As her sister Elizabeth, Jennifer Mathews takes over for the last half of the play and handles it pretty well, although the character isn’t nearly as funny as Mary Ann. Jim Farrell and the hapless Stephen Dunn are also noteworthy, adding their own comic touches when they can.

Thompson’s production, maybe because of Infamous Commonwealth’s love of themes, sheds some humor in order to clarify the message. And Walker’s writing is dense and unevenly paced. However, the humor blasts through in the second act, and the cast comes together to make it work. Comedies, even black comedies, need to roll along at a quick clip, and this Escape from Happiness lumbers under its own weight.

  
   
Rating: ★★
    
      

Extra Credit

           
Escape From Happiness cast1 Escape From Happiness cast2 Escape From Happiness cast3 Escape From Happiness cast4 Escape From Happiness cast5

Featuring: Barbara Anderson, Josh Atkins*, Joe Ciresi*, Stephen Dunn*, Jim Farrell, Nancy Friedrich*, Whitney Hayes*, Chris Maher *, Jennifer Mathews* and Anne Sheridan Smith.           *denotes company member

West Stage of the Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark Street.  Running July 10 thru August 8;  Thursday, Friday, Saturday 8:30pm, Sunday 3:30pm