REVIEW: Float (About Face Theatre)

  
  

‘FLOAT’ rises to the top

  
  

float - About Face Theatre

   
About Face Theatre presents
   
FLOAT
   
Written by Patricia Kane
Directed by
Leslie B. Danzig
at Theater Wit, 1220 W. Belmont (map)
through December 12th  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

In writing, archetypes are a gift and a burden. On one hand, they serve as shorthand characterization, eliminating the need for lengthy and clunky exposition. On the other hand, they are trite, predictable and rather one-dimensional. The trick as a writer is to toe this line. A good playwright will draft characters that rely on familiar characteristics while embodying personalities that are wholly original.

About Face’s world premier of Patricia Kane‘s FLOAT, a play about five Midwestern women forced to confront life’s big issues, could have become a cartoon. After all, it’s fun to mock small-town Midwestern mindsets and the cluckiness of female gossipmongers. And it’s also easy. Instead, Kane takes the high road and delivers a complex and compelling script that is edge-of-your-seat entertaining from beginning to end. Oh, don’t doubt that there’s a good dose of humor – but the laughs are underpinned by the many layers of conflict that bring these five women to life.

The play takes place in Doodee’s (Wendy Robie) barn. By her nature, she is a taskmaster and has taken it upon herself to spearhead the development of the women society’s annual Christmas float. Doodee is joined by her fellow society members, including the young Luce (Amy Matheny), real estate broker Char (Rengin Altay), the difficult Arletta (Peggy Roeder) and the new girl in town Marty (Adrienne Cury).

As the characters construct the holiday float in the first act, conversations turn to matters of religion and ethics. Old-timers Doodee and Arletta are stuck in their ways. In their opinion, there is a right and a wrong, and people deserve to be judged for their indiscretions. Luce, Marty and Char are more forgiving. In fact, Marty fondly quotes the Buddha, choosing to live by the code of live and let live.

By the end of the first act, the cheeriness that had filled the room earlier has faded as unpleasant secrets are revealed. Conflicts arise not just from exterior sources, but also from within as well. And Doodee is left decorating the float alone, listening to holiday songs while on the verge of tears. It’s a powerful act break that makes you resent intermission.

With Kane’s gift for writing and the cast’s gift for performance, this play is near perfection. Kane has molded three-dimensional characters with extraordinarily full lives and back stories. It is because of how thoroughly we know these characters that we can connect with them on such a deep level. In addition, I found no action or piece of dialogue to be out of character. Each woman was distinct and consistent in her nature.

Of course, these accolades can also be attributed to the actresses. Not one is a weak link. From Arletta’s manic episodes to Doodee’s brooding scowl to Marty’s love-struck smirk, the actresses’ genuineness, care and thought shine through. I can easily see the onstage chemistry congealing even more throughout the duration of the run.

Leslie B. Danzig‘s direction is nearly flawless. The whole play takes place in one cramped barn bustling with five scrambling women. Yet, through careful blocking, Danzig manages to give the actors some space, except of course when they are sharing an embrace under the mistletoe.

There was one small scene I’d like to see performed differently. In the second act, Marty conducts an exercise with the widowed Arletta to help her deal with her grief. The scene ends with an interesting revelation from Arletta, but the whole thing goes by too quickly. My recommendation is to slow this scene down, let it breath and it will feel more natural.

FLOAT is a wonderful holiday treat that pleases on a variety of levels. It’s funny, it’s sincere and it’s thought provoking. Plus, it’s got a dynamite cast. If you’re tired of all the holiday fluff that gets thrown on stage this time of year, check out FLOAT.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

REVIEW: Cats (Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre)

Update – now extended through Jan 20th!

  
  

This show’s the cat’s meow!

 
  

The Company in Jellicle Songs. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography

  
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre i/a/w Michael James presents
  
Cats  
 
Music by Andrew Lloyd Weber
Book/Lyrics by
T.S. Eliot
Directed and Choreographed by
Brenda Didier
at
No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood (map)
through January 2  |  tickets: $30-$35  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

How to take a mammoth Broadway production and shrink it without sacrificing dramatic quality or big, broad, showbiz appeal? Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre accomplishes that transformation with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats, under the lively direction and choreography of Brenda Didier. Didier’s collaborations with Theo Ubique’s Artistic Director Fred Anzevino bore fruit last spring with their Jeff award-winning production of Chess (our review ★★½). Well, it looks like Cats is poised to pounce on the holiday theater season and swipe all the public’s attention.

Elliot Burton as Skimbleshanks. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward PhotographyWhittled down to two hours and only 13 actors, Theo Ubique’s production is a model of economy and stagecraft. But, rather than going along with the old “less is more” meme, it seems Didier’s modus operandi is to give the audience more with less–driving her exuberant cast to make immediate, intimate and vivid connections with the audience while precisely mixing dance elements to build excitement and evoke huge emotional response. Her gamble pays off—Broadway excitement achieved on a stage 8 feet by 22 feet. In the whirlwind of musical numbers, it’s a wonder none of the dancers bump into each other or fall off the stage.

Naturally, it helps to have a super-tight ensemble orchestra under the direction of Ethan Deppe. They are the train that drives this production. Every other layer of theatricality has been preserved as much as possible. Costumes (Matt Guthier, with Michael Buoninconto on wigs) and makeup (Izumi Inaba) maintain the big, Broadway tradition while Michael Narduli’s lighting design reinforces the magic evoked by orchestra and cast. Even the old-fashioned Christmas lights circling up above the stage imply a magical setting to the audience enjoying dinner before the show.

Opening night’s energy started a bit slow. Beginning with T.S. Eliot giving his poetry to a girl in a white dress with a blue satin sash, the initial introduction of “Jellicle Cats” came off a touch stagy until “The Rum Tum Tugger” (Tommy Rivera-Vega) gave the audience a bit of Brando-slash-Elvis for us to remember him by. “Mungojerrie and Rumpleteazer” (Elliot Burton and Maggie Portman) boost the proceedings with a ton of delightful play and buoyant energy. The cast’s build-up to the entrance of Old Deuteronomy (Matt McNabb) really sets the element of magic and mystery; McNabb’s elegant tenor voice certainly confirms his mystical authority among the Jellicle Cats. At the introduction of Grizzabella and the first round of “Memories,” Sydney Charles delivers an unmistakable depiction of feral abandonment and alienation.

Emily Rogers as a Siamese in Growltiger. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography. Rebecca Pink as Jennyanydots in Old Gumbie Cat - Cats - Theo-Ubique-Cabaret
Roy Brown as Munkustrap in Naming of Cats. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography. Tommy Rivera-Vega as Rum Tum Tugger in The Rum Tum Tugger. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography

Cats’ theatricality truly soars in the second act. Growltiger (Brian-Alwyn Newland) and Griddelbone (Hillary Patingre) nearly bring the house down with the lush gorgeousness of “The Siamese Italian Aria.” Costuming goes the extra mile by donning the enemies of Growltiger with elaborate Thai headdresses and tunics and the women of the company really get their Siamese on to take out Growltiger. Burton gets a chance to shine again as “Shimbleshanks: The Railway Cat” but his triumph is really the cast’s in their coordinated build-up to the number’s complex and colorful finale. By the time Old Deuteronomy must select the cat that will go on to live another cat life in “the Heaviside Layer,” the audience has become heavily invested in this alternate world and the logic by which it exists. In fact, so long as the music and dance keep going, we might never want to leave.

Theo Ubique has put another feather in its cap (or should I say “cat on its lap”?). Hooray for them and lucky for us to get this furry, magical and whimsical dream against the darkening winter ahead.

  
 
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

The Company in Old Gumbie Cat. Photo by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography

All photography by Gary Ward of G. Thomas Ward Photography

     
     

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REVIEW: A Civil War Christmas (Northlight Theatre)

     
     

History and make-believe, perilously intermixed, lack focus

     
     

Felicia P. Fields with the cast of A Civil War Christmas

   
Northlight Theatre presents
   
A Civil War Christmas
   
Written by Paula Vogel
Directed by
Henry Godinez
at
Northshore Center for Performing Arts (map)
Through Dec 19  |  tickets: $35-$55  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Paula Vogel is a playwright who divides in order to conquer: Her plays depict our socio/political/sexual differences, only to connect us to a larger linkage. How I Learned To Drive, Desdemona, The Baltimore Waltz and And Then There Were Seven scrutinized, respectively, incest, miscegenation, AIDS and same-sex love to put them in a context that discourages kneejerk repudiation and warrants something like understanding bordering on tolerance (well, not for child sex abuse, of course).

001_Khori Faison and Mildred Marie LangfordSet in the grim, war-torn winter of 1864 and on the supposedly special night of Christmas Eve, Vogel’s latest work in progress, now at Northlight Theatre, recalls Andersen’s “The Little Match Girl” as it depicts a fugitive slave searching the dangerous streets of Washington D.C. for the daughter from whom she was separated after her arrival on the Underground Railroad. In ironic contrast, a mood-swinging Mary Todd Lincoln is on her own search—for the perfect Christmas tree to ensure domestic tranquility.

Since Vogel’s plays separate only in order to reconnect, their paths are bound to connect and connect and connect. Vogel contrives to create at least two non-factual Christmas miracles before these busy 150 minutes finally end. Before then she opens a time capsule that’s both absorbingly actual and problematically imagined. The result is a cross-section of life in wartime Washington that’s enriched immeasurably by carols like Longfellow’s “I Heard The Bells” and “What Child Is This?,” spirituals like “There Is A Balm in Gilead” and “Follow the Drinking Gourd” (a guide for escaping slaves), and Civil War anthems (“While We Were Marching Through Georgia” and “The Liberty Ball”).

Between the songs the often cluttered action depicts both sides of a dangerously divided capital circa December 24, 1864. John Wilkes Booth (Derek Hasenstab) and his clumsy conspirators try to kidnap Lincoln. Lincoln (Will Clinger) improbably wanders off in the middle of the night to his Summer Cottage, reciting deathless phrases from his upcoming inaugural address and briefly glimpsing the lost former slave girl. Manic, extravagant, and driven, Mary Todd Lincoln (Paula Scrofano) manages to find her rare fir tree, which should have gone to the orphan home run by her African American seamstress Elizabeth Keckley (Felicia P. Fields), to socialize at a Washington charity event, to chat with Anna Surratt (who’s related to one of her husband’s future murderers), and to visit a dying boy in a soldiers’ hospital. (Maybe there were three Mary Todd Lincolns wandering Washington on this holy night.)

Less well known characters mix with the historical. Willy Mack (Samuel Robertson), who remembers how the Rebels slaughtered the black soldiers at Fort Pillow after they’d peacefully surrendered, vows to take no prisoners: Will he kill a 13-year-old Southern farm boy who wants to fight for Moseby’s Raiders but got lost? Two black soldiers are delegated to steal the much-moving Christmas tree from the Executive Mansion (it wasn’t the White House for another half century) and surprisingly succeed. Jewish soldiers hold a seder.

On this busy night we also catch name-dropping glimpses of Robert E. Lee, Ulysses Grant, Lincoln’s advisor and former law clerk Nikolai, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton , Clara Barton (bringing in the wounded by ship), conspirators Lewis Payne and John Surratt, Elizabeth Thomas (who founded a shelter for wartime refugees), Longfellow, the ghost of Elizabeth’s murdered son, and Walt Whitman (dressing soldiers’ wounds and doubling as St. Nicholas).

In short, A Civil War Christmas lives up to its generic name with awesome specificity, not that the revelations it delivers can be entirely trusted. In the second act the overlapping and sprawling scenes become overcharged as well: The script, bent on at least two happy endings and as many messages of hope, slowly sprouts more contrived coincidences than Dickens would have dared. At least Ragtime, which this show most closely resembles, restricted its mix of historical and imaginary characters to four easily followed and separate-but-equal plotlines, eventuating in a believable but very different family from the traditional one seen at the musical’s beginning.

Director Henry Godinez and a superb cast of Chicago pros and young acolytes work like plow horses to shape and sort out this A.D.D. plethora of multiple narratives and messages. But it still helps if you’re a Civil War buff specializing in the winter of 1864. The point beyond the plots is a strong one. As Vogel says, in 2010 as well as 146 years ago, community values count just as much or more than family values. But if manufacturing feel-good resolutions and ignoring the horrible context of a fratricidal national insurrection is the way to preach that gospel, I’m not a believer. But the ballads, like the exquisite “Yellow Rose of Texas,” are glorious stuff. This show sings far more powerfully and persuasively than it speaks.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

003_Cast of A Civil War Christmas