REVIEW: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (City Lit Theater)

 

The Bodiless Head That Wasn’t Dead

 

 Legend of Sleepy Hollow poster - City Lit Theater

    
City Lit Theatre presents
   
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
   
Written by Stephen F. Murray and Brian Pastor
Based on
novel by Washington Irving
Directed by
Stephen Murray
at
City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Halloween and harvest seem to go together. It’s as if, when the crops are in, the ghouls are out. The land lies fallow and that vacuum is filled by supernatural interlopers, encouraged by the lengthening nights and the coming cold. One of the most infamous is the Headless Horseman, a former Hessian soldier who, having lost his head to a cannon ball, now gallops furiously at midnight, hurling it at unwary travelers and taking them back with him to the bowels of hell.

He’s the main menace in Washington Irving’s delightful fable, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” though a minor one is the thuggish Brom Bones, a bully who recalls the equally intimidating Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast.” The story’s victim, of course, is the itinerant schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, an awkward booby and suspicious as the one scholar in this hamlet of Sleepy Hollow just outside Tarrytown. Poor gangly Ichabod seems even more ridiculous when he falls for the heiress Katrina Van Tussel, only to fall victim to both Bones and his horse Daredevil, as well as the fearsome Horseman. His undoing follows an ill-fated fall quilting bee that goes terribly wrong when Ichabod clumsily courts the cold Katrina (a name to reckon with). Riding his not so trusty speed Gunpowder, Ichabod is launched into a race from hell or to it, it isn’t quite clear.

This is the engaging plot of a Halloween classic that in a mere hour City Lit brings to full life with an impassioned solo performance by co-adaptor Brian Pastor. His accuracy in portraying these Dutch caricatures from New Amsterdam is matched by his ability to paint stirring word pictures of the haunted glens and ponds, especially as feared by the locals.

Matthew Bivins’ original folk score and the live Foley sound effects (as if for a radio broadcast) by Shawn Goudie add considerable texture to Pastor’s talespinning prowess. Props count a lot here, like a bowling ball suggesting the cannon ball that shortened the Hessian wraith, a doll house to suggest the Van Tussel’s gentry status, and percussive instruments to suggest the trotting, then galloping steeds.

It all makes for some potent storytelling: Pastor’s “pliable and persevering” Ichabod is a sad martyr, punished, it seems, for daring to marry above his station. If only he hadn’t closed to school early to go to this harvest dance and the horrors that happened…

The one problem with the text is that the adaptation declares that this is Irving’s most important story. Not true: That distinction clearly belongs to “Rip Van Winkle.”

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Legend of Sleepy Hollow poster - City Lit Theater

REVIEW: State of the Union (Strawdog Theatre)

 

An intriguing political chess game

 

 Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union - 10/6/10 

Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com

   
Strawdog Theatre presents
   
State of the Union
   
Written by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay
Directed by
Geoff Button
at Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through November 13  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

For a political play to matter much, it must prove its relevance beyond its genesis. These dramas must rise above the particulars of their time-sensitive plots and reveal to us a greater truth, something about the human condition or the faults of our society. State of the Union, the 1946 Pulitzer Prize-winning comedy, is an example of this brilliant kind of evergreen political theatre.

Written by Russel Crouse and Howard Lindsay, the play may be rooted in mid-20th century politics, but its tale of political gaming and pandering is as true today as it ever was then. And infused with the talent of the Strawdog Theatre Company, State of the Union manages to not only serve as editorial but as a charmingly funny piece of theatre.

Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union - 10/6/10 

Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com The play centers around political outsider and businessman Grant Matthews (Michael Dailey). Republican political insiders are priming him to be the dark horse candidate in the upcoming presidential election. This includes Kay Thorndyke (Kristina Johnson), a Republican newspaper editor and not-so-secret mistress to Matthews.

Yet, Matthews gives the political bigwigs reason for hesitation when he hits the speaker circuit where he talks about timely issues from his heart rather than from any party’s platform. Much of this honesty is delivered at the behest of his wife, Mary (Kendra Thulin), who like her husband is an idealist. She believes that politicians serve their own self-interest rather than the interests of the people, and upon finding out that her husband may be running for the presidency, she pushes him to stick to his populist convictions.

Unfortunately, playing politics is a dirty game. As we get a peak behind the political curtain, we see just how much strategizing, manipulating and palm greasing actually takes place. This puts Grant in quite the pickle, pitting him against his party, his ideals, his mistress and his wife.

Although I’ve never been a politician, I can confidently say that State of the Union doesn’t seem to be too far from the truth. Look at modern-day outsider candidates like Nevada’s Sharron Angle and Delaware’s Christine O’Donnell, who, once receiving their party’s nomination, were quick to start spewing the same Republican talking points. The only difference is that Grant is a likeable and intelligent candidate, whereas his real-life counterparts are divisive and seemingly simple.

Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union - 10/6/10 

Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com Strawdog has assembled an amazing cast. Dailey portrays grant as a sympathetic idealist. The kindness and sincerity he brings to the role helps us identify with him despite the fact that he’s a flawed husband. Likewise, Thulin provides Mary with a boldness that makes her a believably powerful force against the chummy, political insider boys’ club. Other standout performances include BF Helman as political strategist Jim Conover and Anderson Lawfer as the sassy journalist/campaign manager Spike MacManus.

Geoff Button’s direction is commendable, especially given the sheer number of entrances and exits he has to manage throughout the play, especially in the third act, which is one of those party scenes that literally fills the room with colorful characters.

If the upcoming elections have you tiring of the theatre of politics, then why not check out some insightful political theatre? Along with voting, go see Strawdog’s snappy and relevant production of State of the Union.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Strawdog Theatre - State of the Union - 10/6/10 

Photo by Chris Ocken 
Copyright 2010 - www.ockenphotography.com

   
   

Continue reading

REVIEW: Reefer Madness (The Brown Paper Box Co.)

 

Hilarious musical romp through the wide world of weed

 

Reefer Madness - Brown Paper Box Co 003

   
The Brown Paper Box Co. presents
   
Reefer Madness
 
Book and Lyrics by Kevin Murphy
Music by Dan Studney
Directed by M. William Panek
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through October 24  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The 1938 propaganda film “Reefer Madness” sought to teach the ignorant American masses of the dangers of “marihuana”, including but not limited to grand theft auto, sexual deviance, and murder. Paranoid and misinformed to the extreme, the film’s absurd plot and hilarious depiction of drug users have made it a cult classic, and Kevin Murphy and Dan Studney’s musical spoof is a wonderfully over-the-top  expansion of the film’s best ideas, mainly the claims that marijuana turns people into sex-crazed baby-killing socialists.

Reefer Madness - Brown Paper Box Co_ 006Directed by M. William Panek, The Brown Paper Box Co.’s production of Reefer Madness is at its best during group numbers, when the cast fearlessly tackles the offensive subject matter with vocal gusto. During the smaller numbers, some of the actors struggle to adjust to the absence of the group, and the singing loses precision and clarity.

The musical revels in gratuitous sex and violence, and the exaggeration of these elements highlights the ridiculousness of the movie’s plot, the tragic tale of high school students Jimmy Harper (Tyler Davis) and Mary Lane (Anna Schutz). Under the false pretense of swing dance lessons, drug pusher Jack Stone (David Geinosky) invites Jimmy over to the Reefer Den, where his life will be changed forever.

When Jimmy takes a hit of marijuana for the first time, rather than experiencing lethargy and munchies, Jimmy life descends into a mess of unbridled orgies, Jesus hallucinations, and running over old men with Mary’s car. While Davis’ jonesing can get a little grating to watch at times, he and Schutz showcase impressive vocals, and the two actors have no problem transitioning from adorable sweetness to devilish insanity. Some of the high notes could have more power behind them, and there needs to be a better balance between the volume of the principals and the chorus behind them, but Jimmy and Mary’s tragic romance is a constant source of humor throughout the production.

Reefer Madness - Brown Paper Box Co 004 As the denizens of the Reefer Den, junkies Ralph (Michael Gardner), Sally (Jillian Kate Weingart), and Mae (Chelsea Paice) have some of the best moments in the show as stumble around the stage, humping and smoking whatever they can. Wiley is fantastically manic as Ralph, and is extra creepy as Sally’s baby in one disturbing interlude. Paice gets one of the best ballads of the show, and while she handles the lower register well, the big money notes are lacking in energy and support. Weingart has a similar problem, but she makes up for it with her powerful belting and fierce sexuality.

Reefer Madness is a musical that is not afraid to offend. Whether it is through explicit sexuality or graphic violence, the show pushes the boundaries of musical comedy, taking it to hilariously dark place. Brown Paper Box Co.’s production needs a little more polish to be truly memorable, but the actors tackle the material with dedication and courage. Despite the lows, this musical never comes down from its high.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

Reefer Madness - Brown Paper Box Co 002

Continue reading

REVIEW: Cat on a Hot Tin Roof (Raven Theatre)

 

This cat still purrs

 

Raven Cat horiz 1

   
Raven Theatre presents
   
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof
   
Written by Tennessee Williams
Directed by
Michael Menendian
at
Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through December 19  |  tickets: $30   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Chicago has always had a love affair with Tennessee Williams. This city is where the playwright first found success in 1944 with A Glass Menagerie. The man went on to win a shelf full of Tonys and Pulitzers, but he always had a captive audience in Chicago. Even almost thirty years after death, each theatre season sees a smattering of Tennessee. What makes this more remarkable is that all his best known plays are set in humid locales far removed from the evils of Lake Michigan winters (Glass may be set in the St. Louis, but that’s basically the Midwest’s Florida!).

Raven CAT vert 1 Set in the steamy Mississippi Delta, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof—which earned him his second Pulitzer Prize—covers all the topics that keep Williams relevant. The lengthy play drips in sex, lays bare the dispossession of the nouveau riche in the 20th Century, and cranks out family dysfunction better than a late night talk show. Under the smart directing hand of Michael Menendian, Raven Theatre’s production puts forth a clean production of the canonical text. The superbly talented cast makes the show sing.

An interesting subtlety Menendian caresses out of the script is a change of focus from Maggie (the titular cat) to the touchy relationship between Big Daddy and his alcoholic son, Brick. Sexy, desperate, and, well, catty, it is easy for productions to ride on Maggie’s struggle for survival in a world of plantations and debutants. And the play’s discussion of loveless marriages and repressed homosexuality, refreshingly frank for 1955, often supersede the more classical themes of death and inheritance. Not here. This Cat is not built around Brick’s and Maggie’s wrecked relationship – it’s about Big Daddy’s blind desire to leave his dynasty to the worst candidate for the job, and the resulting consequences.

The show’s paradigm shift is in no way a slight against Liz Fletcher, who portrays Maggie with class and vibrancy. She makes it clear that this cat came from poverty; Fletcher keeps the claws bared. By the final moments, we know she will do anything she has to in order to secure her future. An aloof Jason Huysman brings a healthy dose of humor to his Brick. His main goal is to drink as much as he can until he hears that “click” that will bring peace into his life, and nothing will stop him in his quest (which sounds more depressing than funny, but leads to quite a few laughs). As Brick’s Big Mama, JoAnn Montemurro does great work, keeping the audience tied in to her alternating spats between subservient housewife to head of the family. The breakout performance in the production, though, belongs to Jon Steinhagen as Big Daddy. Steinhagen wraps the character in layers. He’s cranky, lecherous, vicious, yet oddly understanding of Brick’s abnormal (for the time) relationship with his dead friend. In some respects, Steinhagen’s Big Daddy seems more in tune with Brick’s sexuality than Brick.

 

BigMama-Mag-edit Mae-Bow-edit
mag-brick-nylon2,CROPPED_resized Raven Cat horiz 2

The cast keeps the pace breezy and slow, which works in their favor. It has the effect of dousing any sexual fire between Maggie and Brick, but perhaps there shouldn’t really be much there, anyway. There are a handful of overcooked moments that could’ve been sheared off; when Brick enters shirtless and Fletcher gives him a long, silent stare is one example. Katherine Chavez’s guitar-heavy scoring is also unnecessary. It creates artificial melodrama. Raven should leave it to the actors to create the mood.

Either way, this is a rock solid production of a classic American play, which may be its biggest fault (and my problem with Raven in general). There are moments where it feels like a museum piece. Unlike David Cromer’s explosive Streetcar Named Desire (our review) last season, this Cat lacks revelation. I’m not asking for crazy concepts or heavy doses of deconstruction, but, existentially, this production needs a shot in the arm.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
    
   

Maggie-couchcroppedsq-edit

Continue reading