REVIEW: 1985 (Factory Theater)

 

Strong performances penalized by repetitive punchlines

 

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Factory Theater presents
   
1985
   
Written by Chas Vrba
Directed by
Eric Roach
DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)
through November 7  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Chicago, 1985, and the Bear Nation holds totalitarian control over the city’s football fans. As the Bear Nation’s chief propaganda writer Winston (Chas Vrba) begins to question why everyone devotes their lives to a team that keeps losing, the unfathomable happens: the 1985 Bears start winning. A lot. In Chas Vrba’ 1985, George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984” is reimagined in the grisly world of professional sports, where Big Brother is “Papa Bear” George Halas (Ernie Deak) Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 004 and Room 101 turns Packers fans into blue and orange-clad zombies. Vrba should be applauded for trying to bring a new audience of sports fans to the theater, and the clever script is impressively researched and filled with references to the professional sports world.

Winston’s loyalty to the Bear Nation begins to crumble when he notices the flaws in the Nation’s doctrine. A romance with new recruit Julia (Lindsay Verstegen) blossoms into full blown treason, as the two hatch a plan to enlighten their friends through loss. In the midst of the absurdity, Vrba begins to examine the subconscious of the football fan, and the reasons why people cheer for the teams that keep losing. The reason is for years like the ’85 Chicago Bears. The ‘90s Bulls. 2010 Blackhawks. Winning is so much sweeter when all you know is loss. Unfortunately, the script spends less time on idea and more on the goofy antics of the Bear Nation.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (our review), but a comedy about sports culture needs to survive on more than audience-specific jokes and slapstick physical comedy. Vrba’s concept has the potential to explore the deeper emotional and psychological connections between the fans and their team, but this takes a back seat to an uninspired love triangle between Howard, Julia, and foul-mouthed Diane (Stacie Barra). After a while, the script develops the feel of a sketch comedy idea that has overstayed its welcome. Despite the strong efforts of the cast, the limited supply of jokes and gags gets old, making the latter half of the play drag as it retreads old ground. “Bear down!” as a pledge of allegiance stops being funny pretty quickly, and the barrage of groan-worthy Bears puns (“membears,” “bearification,” “bearnificent”) seldom stops, but it’s hard to fault the actors when they show such dedication to their material.

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The hardcore followers of the Bear Nation are unabashed in their chaotic revelry, and the larger group sequences are the most memorable in the production. When everyone gathers to watch the game, you sense the camaraderie An early scene where the Nation puts “membear” Matt (Timothy C. Amos) on trial for his allegiance to the Resistance and role in the Cubs’ loss of the ’84 National Series Championship erupts into a viciously hilarious free for all, and an enraged Amos proves a more than capable opponent for the Nation. Matt’s transformation after a visit to Room 101 gives  Amos a lot of opportunities for screwball comedy, and his reactions to cast mates often trump the actual dialogue. But as the show progresses his outbursts become superfluous; his character another joke Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 001gone stale. Compared to his ecstatic scene partners, Vrba’s controlled, soft-spoken portrayal of Wilson gets lost in a flood of crazy. Wilson never appears very thrilled about the Bears, so when his friends complain about his odd, withdrawn behavior, it just doesn’t make sense.

The sports play is an intriguing creature. The dramatic and comedic potential of professional athletics has been explored by Hollywood, but remains largely unknown to the theater world. The possibility of the same people packing the stands at Soldier Field filling the seats of Chicago theaters is a thrilling one, both from a financial and intellectual standpoint, but is probably an unrealistic hope for most theaters. 1985 is a step in the right direction, and Eric Roach’s slick direction keeps the pace of Vrba’s clever script as smooth as the Super Bowl Shuffle. Despite it’s problems, 1985 has more comic morsels to offer Bears fans than any other play this season, and football fans should definitely give it a look – it will be a night to “remembear”.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: Proof (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

 

Must proof be a prerequisite for belief?

 

Proof-Hal (Nick Freed & Claire (Nilsa Reyna) photo by Scott L. Schoonover

    
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents
   
Proof
  

Written by
David Auburn
Directed by Alex C. Moore
at
Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through November 14  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Proof, a play by David Auburn, a fascinating piece of work that plays with the double entendre of the word “proof” that occurs throughout the show: literal math proofs being solved as well as the need for proof to discover the truth. How can a person prove a fact that seems impossible? Can someone who’s certifiably lost their mind prove to still be a genius in their work? Chicago Fusion Theatre touches on these and so much more with their production.

Robert (Sandy Elias and Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano) photo by Scott L. Schoonover) The set design, by Scott Schoonover, is subtle yet bold, particularly in the color choices of stark white against bright blue. Suspended above the stage are multiple torn-apart notebooks full of mathematical equations. The rest of the set mimics the notebooks in both color and information, with the stages outer walls also covered in equations.  A mirrored backdrop provides the actors space to add additional equations. The set itself if bare save for one chair.

Proof opens on Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano), on her 25th birthday, talking with her father, Robert (Sandy Elias). Desipite DiCristofano and Elias having a real connection that radiates out into the space, DiCristofano starts off a little shaky as she tries to find her ground. As the show continues, however, she definitely improves and finds the depths of Catherine. Elias is instantly personable as he fills the space. When he speaks he owns the stage with an amiable presence.

The plot twists and suddenly it’s clear that Catherine is, in fact, speaking with her dead father – whom she’d taken care of in life – in her own thoughts. It’s a quick turn that pulls the audience further into the action, then caries it forward. Hal (Nick Freed), a former student of Robert’s is going through Robert’s old notebooks, looking for uncovered mathematical discoveries. Freed is funny and charming in his role; he understands his character’s intentions and brings Hal to life.

Catherine’s sister Claire (Nilsa Reyna), returns home for their father’s funeral and to help Catherine out until she figures out what to do. Reyna starts out flat, especially as her character demands that emotions are let loose loose and exposed. DiCristofano, on the other hand, flourishes with her understated, dry humor as she delves into the depths of her character.

Hal (Nick Freed) photo by Scott L. Schoonover Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano) photo by Scott L. Schoonover
Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano & Robert Sandy Elias) photo Scott L. Schoonover Robert (Sandy Elias) Photo by Scott L. Schoonover

DiCristofano, like Elias, has great stage chemistry with Freed. They play well off of each other. Whenever there’s a scene between DiCristofano and Elias or DiCristofano and Freed, it’s captivating.

Through Proof, the action moves quickly and efficiently. There’s no point in which a scene drags on or is dragged out, allowing the scenes to flow and keep the audience’s attention. In between scenes the characters all add more and more mathematical equations to the walls of the set, adding to the chaos occurring around them. It’s an interesting punctuation between the performances and character interactions.

When Elias takes the stage later in the show in flashbacks of Catherine’s memory, he’s quite a stage presence. He’s full of life and commands the audience’s attention so it’s impossible to tear yourself away.

As the characters become more emotional, the scenes become more raw and heart wrenching. Since it’s such a small space, you can see all of the emotions play out in the actor’s eyes, pulling us into the action and holding us hostage.

Chicago Fusion has given us proof that they are a talented company, ably conveying their seismic artistic voice in intimate spaces.  

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano) photo by Scott Schoonover) Proof plays at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St., through November 14. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (312) 988-9000 or at the Royal George Theatre’s Web site.

  
  

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REVIEW:Sweet Bird of Youth (Artistic Home) now thru Jan16!

Update: Due to sold-out houses, now extended thru Jan 16th!

When Monster meets Monster

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The Artistic Home presents
   
Sweet Bird of Youth
   
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by Dale Calandra
at Artistic Home Theatre, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through Nov 28  |  tickets: $20-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

A waiter I once worked with would, from time to time, show up on the job in a t-shirt reading, “Old age and treachery will always overcome youth and skill.” That could be the working subtitle for Tennessee WilliamsSweet Bird of Youth, now onstage at The Artistic Home under the direction of Dale Calandra. Williams’ famed gigolo, Chance Wayne (Josh Odor), is no match for the wizened, tougher, and connected oldsters surrounding him. Wanted for his masculine beauty, Chance has tried to parlay his charm and sex appeal into lasting fame and fortune, sacrificing over time his young love, Heavenly (Elizabeth Argus), in the process. Chance returns to his hometown of St. Cloud in the company of an aging, incognito actress to try and wrest Heavenly from the control of her father—his nemesis—the oily Southern politician Boss Finley (Frank Nall).

Chancealone But Sweet Bird of Youth is more about the sordid, compromised relationship between Chance and Princess Kosmonopolis (Kathy Scambiatterra) than about any hope of a future for two separated young lovers. The Princess, or rather, Alexandra Del Lago, is Chances’ last way out of his poor background into a life of luxury. But it’s a way out that can only happen under certain sexploitative conditions. Their affair is a cramped hothouse world in which people can only use and be used. As for Heavenly, she can only be used by her father in his political campaign against desegregation, under the pretense defending the purity of Southern youth against the mixing of the races.

However, neither Heavenly nor Chance is pure anymore. Much about their corrupt, classist environment has blighted their youth. Calandra’s organic direction instinctively draws out Williams’ political intentions. One is never hammered over the head with them but allowed to see them as part of the interplay among the rest of Williams’ themes. In Boss Finley’s quasi-religious belief in his racist mission, one sees shades of Glenn Beck, as well as Bristol and Sarah Palin. One sees Tea Partiers in the young men rallied to his campaign by the Boss’s son, Tom Junior (Tim Musachio). In fact one sees shades of W. in Tom Junior–quite an unnerving thing.

But rest assured, the Artistic Home’s production is not one big political deconstruction. True to Williams’ intent, the cast brings out all the sex, wit, and poetry crammed into the script. The opening scene alone casts Odor in a silhouette reminiscent of Paul Newman or Steve McQueen. Odor’s Chance sulks his way into sexiness—a completely different take on the role from Newman. Here one senses a man very cognizant of the clock ticking on his last desperate bid to make his dreams come true. Scambiatterra is simply an acting marvel. Her comic timing is impeccable in this deeply witty, high-maintenance-has-been-turned-comeback role. The very sound of her gravelly voice grounds Williams’ heightened, poetic language to realist perfection.

That leaves the other oldster, Frank Nall (Boss Finley) to solidly set the third pillar of this production. Nall has all the nuances of his corrupt Southern politician down pat–all the Boss’s patriarchal ChancePrincesspurplecontrol, bigotry, possessive affection, humor and hypocrisy he delivers in a performance as natural and perfectly tailored as the Boss’s nice white suit. Nuanced touches from the rest of the cast set the right mood and tone, but there is nothing like a good villain for the hero to go up against.

“When monster meets monster, one monster has to give way,” says Alexandra, as she spars with Chance in their hotel room. No matter how hard Chance tries to manipulate the situation, he is always giving way. To a certain degree he cannot accept the compromised soul he has become. The other monsters, particularly the older ones, have learned that this is what they are now. The lovely past, with all its fresh promise and innocent potential, cannot be retrieved. Mike Mroch’s snow white set design establishes the Easter Sunday sanctity into which Chance and the Princess intrude with their queer quarrels and decadent life together. But Jeff Glass’s lighting design of lurid reds and blues soon make it clear that they belong here at this monster’s ball. They belong in St. Cloud with all the other monsters. Let the Heckler (Keith Neagle) tell that to the Boss.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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