Review: Thieves Like Us (House Theatre of Chicago)

 

Predictable bank-robbing adventure is fun as heck

Thieves Like Us - House Theatre - Byrnes Bowers Hickey

   
The House Theatre of Chicago presents
 
Thieves Like Us
   
Written by Damon Kiely
Directed by Kimberly Senior

at Chopin Theatre,  1543 W. Division (map)
through October 30  |  
tickets: $25-$29  |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

House Theatre fans will be in their raucous comfort zone with the company’s latest action-packed production. Thieves Like Us is chock full of the House’s signature elements:  Retro-comic book storyline? Check. Old school siren whose vocal stylings punctuate the scenes? Check. Cops, robbers, dames and drunks? Yup. And where previous House productions have made ingenious use of actors striding across the stage carrying picture frames and pop-up books to evoke small towns, big cities and points in between, Thieves uses a similar technique with newspapers to illustrate the Dust Bowl surroundings of Bowie Bowers and his posse of stick-up men.

But even with its profoundly predictable ending (which pays homage and owes a debt to both Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thieves Like Us  is a step up for the House. After bursting onto the scene in the early Aughts with an inspired, revisionist take on Peter Pan,  the House continued with variations on the theme of lost boys long enough to become repetitive. The particulars changed as the House churned out stories of Samarai, cowboys, wannabe rockstars, science nerds and flying cheerleaders (our review ★★★½) – but the core of each adventure remained the same: Adolescence is tough. Growing out of it is even tougher.  For a while, it seemed that their target audience was restricted to ‘tween boys.

thieves Like Us - House Theatre - posterThat demographic will love Thieves Like Us, no doubt. But Thieves, written by Damon Kiley and directed by Kimberly Senior also has enough smarts and wry self-awareness to make grownups smile as well. It’s hero – Bowie Bowers, Depression-era desperado driven to thieving because an honest Joe can’t catch a break in the Dust Bowl – is surely relatable to anybody who has felt the pinch of the current recession (which is to say, everybody).

We first meet our hero at hard labor on a prison somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line – the locale being evident by the oozing-syrup Okie drawl everybody talks with. It’s mere moments before the first burst of cartoon violence breaks out as Bowie (John Byrnes), hardened convict Chicamaw (Shawn Pfautsch) and elder statesman T-Dub (Tom Hickey) make a break for it. Across the plains they go, knocking over banks and planning One Last Score so that all can retire, maybe in sunny May-hee-ko. There’s A Girl (of course), who is instrumental in convincing Bowie to give up the stick-ups and settle down to a quiet life “on the straight.”  But of course Bowie can’t do that until he makes that One Last Score. And but of course, the last heist goes spectacularly awry.

The plot may be less than innovative, but the Kiley’s dialogue and the ensemble’s zesty execution of it make it mighty entertaining.

As Bowie, Byrnes creates a man of simple wants and basic decency – all he wants is a clean start, Bowie keeps emphasizing, but of course that’s just not possible, no matter how much money he steals.

Senior elicits strong performances from her supporting cast as well, starting with Pfautsch’s Chicamaw, who comes close to stealing the show along with the loot from the vault. Pfautsch instills the violent, hard-drinking, hardened criminal  Chicamaw with an impish spark that’s part playful sprite and part psychopath. It’s hard to say which is dominant, and that’s part of the character’s dangerous, wild-eyed charisma. The third man in the gang is Hickey‘s T-Dub, the nominal brains of the group. Also memorable is Tim Curtis, who exudes sly, degenerate charm first as a retired hold-up man and later as an oily attorney.

As for the women in the cast, Chelsea Keenan radiates joy, lust and deliciously girlish immaturity as Lula, a good-time blonde who can turn a kitchen table into a dance floor faster than you can say Jack Robinson.  And as a one-woman Greek goddess of a Greek chorus, Beth Sagal’s torch song narration is as rich and velvety as fine chocolate.  Breathing life into the composer Kevin O’Donnell’s seductive melodies, she’s a showstopper whose perspective adds significant depth to the comic book veneer. As for Bowie’s gal, the “Pistol Princess” Cheechie, Paige Hoffman is an appropriately hard-nosed moll although her romance with Bowie isn’t especially believable – they seem to love each other only because conventional storytelling demands that the main gangster have a girl to complicate matters.

The adventures of Bowie Bowers might not be especially original. But they’re colorful and clever and entertaining as heck.

   
   
Rating: ★★½       
   
      

Production Personnel 

 

Cast

Fabulous Torch Singer
Beth Sagal
Bowie Bowers
John Byrnes
Keechie
Paige Hoffman
Chicamaw
Shawn Pfautsch
Mattie / Mother / Desk Clerk 2
Bridget Haight
Dee / Ted / Hawkins / Desk Clerk 3
Tim Curtis
Lula / Ms. Biggerstaff / Hurt Woman / Grocery Lady / Tourist / Nurse / Desk Clerk 1
Chelsea Keenan
Guard 2 / Police Man / Officer 2 / Mr. Berger / Lambert / Bank Manager / Desk Clerk 2 / Stammers
Chris Mathews
Guard 1 / Officer 1 / Plumber / Cook / Ticket Clerk / Brave Man / Desk Clerk 1 / Voice
Mike Smith
T-Dub
Tom Hickey

 

Crew and Creative Team

Director:  Kimberly Senior
Assistant Director: AJ Ware
Playwright: Damon Kiely
Dramaturge: Derek Matson
Composer/Music Director: Kevin O’Donnell
Choreographer: Tommy Rapley
Assistant Scenic Director: Emma Deane
Costume Designer: Alison Siple
Lighting Designer: Charlie Cooper
Assistant Lighting Designer: Nic Jones
Sound Designer: Christopher Kriz
Fight Choreographer: Nick Sandys
Assistant Fight Choreographer: Stephen Anderson
Production Manager: Jeremy Wilson
Stage Manager: Kate Guthrie
Assistant Stage Manager: Brae Singleton
Technical Director: Ryan Poethke
Costume Manager: Mieka Van der Ploeg
Wardrobe Supervisor: Liz Wilson
Assistant Props Master: Ann Brady
Master Electrician: Will Dean
Props Master: Maria DeFabo
Dialect Coach: Bridget Haight
Set Designer: Lee Keenan

2 Responses

  1. […] of gags. And lately (although I wasn’t able to see the season opener, Thieves Like Us – our review ★★½), their work has been falling flat on it’s face. For example, last season’s Girls vs. […]

  2. […] of gags. And lately (although I wasn’t able to see the season opener, Thieves Like Us – our review ★★½), their work has been falling flat on it’s face. For example, last season’s Girls vs. […]

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