REVIEW: The Censor (Ebb and Flow Theatre)

 

The sex whisperer

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Ebb and Flow Theatre presents
 
The Censor
   
Written by Anthony Neilson
Directed by
Mike Rice
at
The Basement, 1142 W. Lawrence (map)
through November 20  |  tickets: $10  |  more info

I’ve been to theater in basements before—nice, clean church basements, whose price is right for the cash-strapped theater company. But the setting for Ebb and Flow Theatre’s current production, The Censor, is a basement of an altogether different order—dank, musty, dirty, with an air of eerie abandonment. It’s a basement where you wonder where the bodies are buried. If you are tall, watch your head. Pipes jutting from the fairly low ceiling only contribute to the show’s claustrophobic atmosphere. Ebb and Flow want to give Scottish playwright Anthony Neilson’s play all the subterranean impact they can, given that the play is about our tendency to relegate explicit sex, and all attempts to depict it, to a foul and shame-filled underworld.

Censor 6 Under the direction of Mike Rice, this basement is the office of The Censor (John Gray). He works in the pornography department to which the Board of Classification has consigned him and it serves as a purgatory to which he’s resigned himself. “Do you know what we call this place?” he asks Ms. Fontaine (Geraldine Dulex), creator of the sexually explicit film he is in the process of rating. “It’s called ‘The Shithole’.” At another juncture he confesses, “We’re virtually lepers down here.” It’s his duty to act as society’s guardian, rating the pornography that comes across his desk, protecting the rest of us from its illicit images. Yet simply coming into contact with such material has rendered him a pariah in his co-workers’ eyes.

Ms. Fontaine tries to make The Censor “see” her film as she intended, the story of a love affair depicted in images, not words, using only “the international language of sex.” At first one suspects she’s pulling the tired, old “porn as art” ruse in order to win a less restrictive rating but, first and foremost, Fontaine is a believer. Her attempts to convince The Censor clearly indicate that she is out to obtain converts. As though she were a prophet, seer, or mystic, she then reads The Censor sexually and emotionally, proving her currency with the “language of sex” by accurately guessing his childhood and current marital state without anything divulged from him. Ms. Fontaine becomes the Sex Whisperer to all The Censor’s secret sexual privations, insecurities, and humiliations. Their relationship takes on a therapeutic, as well as pornographic, aspect as he opens up about the true nature of his sexually desiccated day-to-day existence.

Much about Ebb and Flow’s production is enjoyable. Neilson’s dialogue is tight, riveting and often poetic. Rice’s direction moves the action along convincingly and realistically—no small feat for a play that mimics porn scenarios. John Gray’s performance alone is worth the price of admission. He lends meaty depth, humor and humanism to his character’s loneliness, isolation and constant, neurotic desperation to do things correctly. Dulex may have a greater challenge depicting Fontaine, who often comes across as the all-knowing voice of sex and hardly seems human at all. Dulex definitely captures Fontaine’s oddly enigmatic, distanced perspective. For all

the daring with which this messiah engages in sex, the emotional connections are just not there.

 

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As for me, I came away from The Censor unconvinced as to its “in-yer-face” daring or authenticity. An award-winning play, The Censor depends just a little too heavily on basing Fontaine’s legitimacy upon her quasi-mystical sexual therapy. The scenario of the wiser, more experienced sexual partner claiming greater knowledge than the inexperienced or repressed initiate—knowing him better than he knows himself—is as old as porn itself. It certainly receives no refreshing or insightful treatment here. Furthermore, the play is hampered by the scattered introduction of The Censor’s wife (Amy Johnson) between the scenes in which Fontaine makes her case about the film. It was almost a relief to see Johnson sit down in an actual scene with Gray. Finally their marital malaise was palpable and thoroughly cemented his ostracization to the porn purgatory he has, essentially, chosen.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: Candida (ShawChicago)

 

Shaw explores love by choice rather than passion

 

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ShawChicago presents
    
Candida
  
Written by George Bernard Shaw
Directed by
Robert Scogin
at
Ruth Page Theater, 1016 N. Dearborn (map)
through November 8  |  tickets: $10-$22   |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

Everyone loves the Morells but nobody wants to talk about it! ShawChicago presents Candida, George Bernard Shaw’s play about love in and outside the marriage. In 1894 London, Reverend James Morell is in demand on the lecture circuit. His social reform stance has made him a celebrity. His idolizing fans place him on a pedestal. The Reverend enjoys the adoration of his followers including his favorite admirer, Candida –his wife. Life for the Reverend is worship as usual until a young man declares his own love for Candida. Not just that, the young man proposes he’s better suited for her because he’s totally focused on HER happiness. Over a hundred years later, Shaw’s deconstruction of love is timeless humor. In the formalized culture of the time period, love is and isn’t discussed with apologies and controlled emotion. Shaw scrutinizes a marriage to a husband, who has a healthy sense of self. When one confession leads to another, love happens. Candida is a humorous debate of the meaning of love without feelings.

George_bernard_shaw As is ShawChicago’s style, Candida is performed as a staged reading. No sets. No costumes. Under the direction of Robert Scogin, it’s all about Shaw’s words interpreted by a talented cast. Matt Penn (Morell) has controlled intensity as the Reverend. His bursts of rage are a surprising contrast to his confident public self. The target of the anger, Christian Gray (Eugene) plays the young confessor of love with nervous energy and a hint of evil intent. Gray provides a complex version of the love opponent with poetic horrors. Barbara Zahora (Candida) is coarsed-grain. She lives in her husband’s world but maintains her own identity. Zahora charms with a strong sensibility. Lydia Berger (Garnett) is hysterical as the uptight typist. A victim of a secret love, Berger is sharp-tongued with delicious bitterness.

Jack Hickey (Mr. Burgess) assesses the ‘madness’ around him with humor and a strong working class English accent. Sparring with Berger, Kaelen Strouse (Lexy) is also crushing on the Reverend with a sweet devotion. This cast magnificently flirts with all the aspects of unrequited love.

Undoubtedly, Candida shocked the turn-of-the-century audiences. Today, it still surprises for its ageless topic, love. In 2010, love is expressed with emotion. Uncontrollable passion drives people together and apart. It’s not so much a decision to love, as the fated outcome of animalistic urges. Perhaps we should all channel our inner Shaw for lively intellectual debates on love before going heels over head.

Critics, like other people, see what they look for, not what is actually before them. –George Bernard Shaw

   
   
Rating: ★★★
    
   

Running Time: Two hours includes a fifteen minute intermission

   
   

REVIEW: Cash on Delivery (Saint Sebastian Players)

 

Spinning Plates

 

Cash on Delivery - Saint Sebastian Players 2

   
Saint Sebastian Players present
   
Cash on Delivery
   
Written by Michael Cooney
Directed by
Jonathan “Rocky” Hagloch
at
St. Bonaventure Church, 1625 W. Diversey (map)
thru November 14  |  tickets: $10-$15   |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Identity theft is usually not the stuff of combustible comedy. But when it’s tied up with and results in mistaken identities, mixed signals, ill-timed interruptions and the rest of the detritus of classic farce, confusion can be critically comical. Michael Cooney, son of Ray (“Run for Your Wife”) Cooney, clearly learned from his father all the literal ins and outs of vintage farce with its slamming doors and self-fulfilling folly. The big difference here is that Cash on Delivery is no bedroom farce (though there’s some genuine confusion about supposed gay or cross-dressing activity). No, here the impetus is an elaborate and perilous fraud perpetrated by Chicago landlord Eric Swan against the Social Security Administration. It seems that the S.S.A. has inundated the opportunistic Eric with claims for a former tenant that, with a little scamming and false filings, mushroomed into $65,000 per year’s worth of multiple deceptions for unemployment, disability, medical and many other false benefits that this unemployed husband just didn’t have to courage or rectitude to decline.

Cash on Delivery - Saint Sebastian Players Of course, living a lie is a lot more taxing (so to speak) than sticking to the simple truth. It all threatens to elaborately unwind as Mr. Jenkins, a nerdy S.S. investigator, comes by for two simple signatures for some required paperwork. That’s all it takes for Cooney to unleash a flood of desperate cover stories as one lie contradicts another and Eric’s house of prevarication comes slowly tumbling down over the next 140 minutes. To pull off the crazed complications (which recall the excesses of Weekend with Bernie grafted onto Lend Me a Tenor) that eventually yield to the straightforward truth and a plausible happy ending requires the usual tour de force of timing, mugging, slow burns, costume switches, double faces, switcheroos, cover-ups, and other comic machinery.

Jonathan Hagloch’s ten actors pull off the shenanigans fairly well, with Greg Callozzo spinning the plates without dropping any (a metaphor taken from the old “Ed Sullivan Show”): Flagrantly and with multiplying mania, his Eric tries to keep his stories straight, with inept help from his upstairs tenant (busy Doug Werder). It helps that the other characters are credulous enough to be taken in by their sham show, most particular an increasingly hysterical Angela Bullard as Eric’s tormented wife, Michael Wagman as the nebbishy S.S. investigator, and Lyn Scott as his battleaxe supervisor. Jim Masini gets battered into unconsciousness as Eric’s venal uncle. The others play an overly helpful family crisis counselor, an officious undertaker, the neighbor’s frazzled fiancée, and a marriage counselor who adds his own befuddlement to this toxic mix.

With silly stuff like this, it’s more important to play it quickly than smoothly. Only in the overlong second act, where the playwright seems to be showing off his ability to keep the lies separate but equal, does the plot thicken into more turgidity than hilarity. But the audience never stops laughing throughout and that’s how you know a farce has force. You don’t have time to wonder why the S.S.A. makes house calls or a social worker can instantly arrange a funeral on the spot. The jokes come faster than any saving skepticism that might stop them in their tracks. Of course, we wouldn’t have it any other way.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Drury Lane)

 

Dynamic choreography, rousing leading lady save flawed musical

 

 (L-R) Cara Salerno, Vanessa Panerosa, Amber Mak, Hallie Cercone, Abby Mueller, Katie Huff, and Amanda Kroiss star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner

        
Drury Lane Oakbrook presents
   
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers
   
Book by Gene del Paul, Al Kasha and Joel Hirschhorn
Music/Lyrics by Gene del Paul, Al Kasha, Joel Hirschhorn and Johnny Mercer
Directed by Bill Jenkins
Musical Direction by
Roberta Duchak
at
Drury Lane Theatre, Oakbrook Terrace (map)
through December 19  |  tickets: $31-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

In the 1954 movie musicalSeven Brides for Seven Brothers”, when men kidnap women and trick them into marriage, it’s not Stockholm syndrome, it’s love. “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” is one of those movie musicals that is a product of its time, when women were looked at as little more than glorified housekeepers and baby makers, born to do the will of their man. When Adam Pontipee (Steve Blanchard) deceives the sassy Milly (Abby Mueller) into marrying him, his six brothers set out to capture wives for themselves, ambushing six town girls and throwing them in the back of their wagon. It’s offensive, but the music is jovial and melodic, the dancing is energetic and plentiful, and the film’s leading man Howard Keel’s booming voice and charming smile make it difficult to despise the chauvinistic Adam.

(L-R) Richard Strimer (Benjamin) and Abby Mueller (Milly) star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett BeinerMy problems with the stage adaptation of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers arise from its attempts to flesh out the characters, which sounds like a good thing but ends up backfiring by making them even shallower. The solos do very little to make you sympathize with the characters, with Milly’s “One Man” beginning as a condemnation of her husband’s trickery before devolving into a tribute to female subservience. Conversely, Adam’s big Act Two moment of redemption “Where Were You?” attempts to justify his sexism by giving him a daddy complex, blaming his actions on his absent father instead of taking responsibility himself. It’s not difficult to assume that Adam’s behavior is a product of his environment, but when it is put into song it just makes the already unlikable character seem pathetic. Blanchard’s vocals don’t help matters, lacking the timbre and strength expected from an 1850 frontiersman. And while the added ensemble numbers manage to evoke the musical style of the film, the solos and smaller group sequences have a contemporary feel that is out of place with the rest of the show’s classic musical theater sound.

The highlight of the production is easily Milly and her relationship with her six brothers-in-law. Mueller’s crystal clear tone and powerful belt make her musical numbers stand out, and she has great chemistry with her new relatives as she assumes a dominating mother position in the household. Watching the brothers transform under Milly’s feminine influence is a joy, from learning to dance in “Goin’ Courtin’” to finally appreciating their women in the heartfelt “Glad That You Were Born.” With the brothers, there is evidence of a struggle between the uncivilized way they’ve been brought up and the restraint that makes for successful courting. “We Gotta Make It Through The Winter” is a hilarious exclamation of horny frustration, but it is followed by Daniel (William Travis-Taylor) and Frank (Brandon Springman) ruminating on the somber effects of loneliness in the beautiful “Lonesome Polecat.”

 

(L-R)  Abby Mueller (Milly) and Steve Blanchard (Adam) star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner (L-R) Richard Strimer, Jarret Ditch, William Travis Taylor, Chris Yonan, Brandon Springman and (back) Zach Zube star in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers.  Photo by Brett Beiner.

The brothers learning to dance comes in handy for Tammy Mader’s intense, dynamic choreography. Maybe the reason Adam and Milly’s romance never blossoms on stage is because they don’t have a nice dance together like the brothers and their brides. There isn’t much depth to these characters and their affection for each other, but the substance appears in their dancing, when the chemistry really ignites. The extended town dance sequence in Act I is a mesmerizing affair, albeit a little chaotic and unclear at times, while an Act II all-bride dream ballet brings some sensuality to the affair.

Like the film, this production is propelled by its dancing, but bodies in movement can’t overcome all the flaws of the writing. The changes to the film give the story a more modern context, and the attempt to psychoanalyze the characters through song removes much of the musical’s charm. Drury Lane’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a polished, well-performed production, but the questionable source material prevents it from rising to true greatness.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

(L-R) Chris Yonan, Hallie Cercone, Jarret Ditch, and Cara Salerno star in SEVEN BRIDES FOR SEVEN BROTHERS, running through December 19 at Drury Lane Theatre. Photo by Brett Beiner

 

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REVIEW: Titus Andronicus (DreamLogic TheatreWorks)

 

Set in historic mansion, a gripping tale of war and revenge

 

 Titus Andronicus - DreamLogic TheatreWorks 3

    
DreamLogic TheatreWorks presents
   
Titus Andronicus
   
Written by William Shakespeare 
Directed by
Scott McKinsey
at
The Hopkinson House, 10820 South Drew (map)
through November 6   |  more info 
Note: performance includes house tour, open bar, and catered dinner

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

It has been over thirty years since I set foot inside one of the Morgan Park/Beverly mansions. They always seemed so forbidding and aloof on the other side of Longwood Drive. I felt a deep sense of privilege and gratitude to see a stunning version of Titus Andronicus in the Hopkinson Mansion. DreamLogic Theatre Works has woven Shakespeare’s earliest tragedy with a historic house that was the last stop for the Underground Railroad in the northern states. The Hopkinson house is as much a character in the play as is the searing violence and venal scheming of the Shakespeare’s Goths and Romans.

Titus Andronicus - DreamLogic TheatreWorks 4 The play is set when Rome was in decline. The Goths were invading Rome, pillaging villages, and meting out horrible punishments. The general Titus returns after a ten-year battle with the Queen Tamora and her retinue as his spoils of war. He executes Tamora’s son Alarbus to appease the Roman gods and sets in motion a carnal revenge cycle.

DreamLogic chose to present this production promenade style in the attic of the Hopkinson house. It is a wise choice that gives an almost enchanted value to the drama. I was given a tour of the home and some history revealing that Mrs. Hopkinson was a member of Queen Victoria’s court who also hosted dramatic productions in the same attic. The producers and cast also have been privy to a sweet ghost by the name of Spencer. The young lad’s trunk is a prop in the production and Spencer played a few pranks on the wardrobe mistress I was told. In the promenade style, the audience is a part of the play. The cast members wend their way through the audience. They address us as ‘Romans’ and look us in the eye while sometimes touching us. The audience is more witness than mere voyeur being entertained for a few hours. I was entranced by some action on the stage only to be surprised at the character of Aaron crouching behind me, panting and waiting to attack.

The attic is dressed in burlap and what seems to be birch twigs set as antlers, transforming the space into the cave-like smudged camps of ancient wars. Dim lights represent camp fires and oil lamps of ancient Rome. The slaves and captives are thrown into a pit that was originally hiding place for escaped slaves in America. The cruelty of war and slavery is the same in every age and it sent a shudder down my spine every time that pit was mentioned.

The cast of this production is superb. Titus Andronicus has long been maligned as one of Shakespeare’s lesser works. The combination of the cast will definitely make you reconsider this assumption. The actors trod the attic completely inhabiting the roles as if they’re the ghosts themselves. Curtis Powell plays the role of Titus with a measured ferocity such that it is a shock when the character’s madness is revealed to be a ruse.

Megan Storti plays the malevolent and seductive Tamora. Ms. Storti gives a savage performance as a queen in captivity. The Moor, Aaron, is played by Mallory Backstrom. I have seen some brilliant performances with nontraditional casting and I add this to that roster. Ms. Backstrom projects the warrior, lover, and defiant sire with heat and lithesome grace.

Jack Sharkey is impressive as the cuckolded Saturnius. Mr. Sharkey’s character commands the stage as the emperor by nepotism. Alexis Meuche as the doomed Lavinia is also wonderful. Her character is the first to suffer one of the works’s many dismemberments and brutal assaults. Ms. Meuche plays the muted Lavinia with raw emotion and superb physicality. (I could not look away though I wanted to when Chiron and Demetrius attack her.)

Ray Ready as Chiron and Edwin Unger as Demetrius bring some dark humor to the tragedy as well as requisite savagery. Rounding out this stellar cast are Paul Fleschner, Nick Goodman, Sara Katherine Hammond, Brendan Siegfried, Jeffrey Clarke Stokes, Brady Greer Huffman, and Mickey Renan. They revolve in and out of various roles without missing a step. Scott McKinsey’s direction is excellent and well paced. That is no small feat considering that this is a three hour production with one ten minute intermission.

I highly recommend Titus Andronicus as produced by DreamLogic. This is a full theatre experience and an immersion in history of this regions and our country’s own shameful past as passed down from ancient history.

       
       
Rating: ★★★★
     
    

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As a side note-the Hopkinson mansion has a history as a residence to students throughout the years. Cast member Mallory Backstrom is in residence and an excellent tour guide. It’s a very worthy Chicago style theatre adventure. Go see it!

The production runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays Through November 6th at the Hopkinson Mansion, 10820 S. Drew Street, in the historic Beverly neighborhood of Chicago. The house is open at 6:30pm with a complimentary open bar, catered dinner, and look around the home before the show at 8:00pm. The Metra is right around the corner from the mansion and if you are feeling adventurous you can get there by CTA Red Line, the Vincennes bus, and then a short walk. If you don’t know your way around I would suggest a taxi from the 95th stop. More information is available at dreamlogictheatreworks@gmail.com

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