REVIEW: Robin Hood: The Panto! (Piccolo Theatre)

  
  

Raucous humor amidst the Dark Forest

  
  

piccolo theatre, robin hood, 2010, Fairy (Vanessa Hughes), Robin Hood (Berner Taylor), Fairy (Amy Gorelow), Bess Flatbottom (Andrew Roberts)

  
Piccolo Theatre presents
   
Robin Hood: The Panto!
   
Written by Jessica Puller
Music by Tyler Beattie
Directed by Glenn Proud & Brianna Sloane
at Evanston Arts Depot, 600 Main (map)
through Dec 18  | 
tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

You’ve got to hand it to Piccolo Theatre for perennially bringing a bit of wacky English theater tradition to Evanston environs each holiday season. British Pantos are pure, unadulterated silliness. At Robin Hood: The Panto!, expect all the traditional British ribaldry—cheering the hero, booing the villain, and shouting, “He’s behind you!” when our hero is under sneak attack. The real fun of the show is witnessing full-on participation from a typically polite and respectful theater crowd.

Bess Flatbottom (Andrew Roberts) and Robin Hood (Berner Taylor)Oh—and the Dame (Andrew Roberts)—did I forget to mention that one must whistle and hoot every entrance made by the Dame? Shame on me! Whistle the Dame, everyone, or be known as real drag.

Co-directed by Glenn Proud and Brianna Sloane, Robin Hood: The Panto! is the newly-minted creation of young playwright Jessica Puller, who authored their successful last year’s panto, Perseus and Medusa: or It’s All Greek To Me (our review ★★★). You’d better not expect something like the Ridley Scott or Kevin Reynolds’ versions of the Robin Hood legend—Puller takes a nice big swipe at those.

No, in this version, Robin Hood (Berner Taylor) looks hot in fishnets but has a head the size of a watermelon from all the hero worship he gets from fans and the media. An eager overreacher, Scarlet (Nicole Keating) just wants to be part of Robin’s Merry Men but Robin, Little John (Adam McLeavey) and Alan A Dale (Maxx Miller) never cut her the slack to let her join. Of course, it’s tough when one is constantly outshone and out-thieved by Philip, the Cow (Vanessa Hughes and Amy Gorelow). Rescuing the lovely Maid Marian (Kaitlin Chin) from the deliciously sinister and effete Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Ben Muller) is a weekly event, but this time a trek to The Dark Forest leads Scarlet to discover a magic spell book by which she can rewrite events as she wills.

Piccolo’s production shamelessly rips off “I Love Lucy” and every other old vaudeville bit and joke. When I say old, friends, I mean that, no doubt, many of these jokes and shticks were unearthed from the catacombs. But the cast excels at driving a sassy pace and playing every moment with gusto. What is even more important is the spot-on improvisation and interaction with the audience that they deliver. On opening night, an audience member trying to sneak back into her seat after intermission was greeted with a scathing “Nice of you to join us!” from Sir Guy. But our plucky audience gave as well as they got. Once the Sheriff of Nottingham (Vic May) got turned into a duck from Scarlet’s magic spell book, someone from the audience yelled out “AFLAC!”

The Fairies (Vanessa Hughes and Amy Gorelow) piccolo theatre, robin hood, 2010, Fairy (Vanessa Hughes), Robin Hood (Berner Taylor), Fairy (Amy Gorelow), Bess Flatbottom (Andrew Roberts) Robin Hood (Berner Taylor)

Other memorable moments include Noah Ginex’s magic scene and puppetry design, as well as Vanessa Hughes and Amy Gorelow playing the evil spirits of the Dark Forest, busting out a power ballad just like the 1980’s duo, Heart. But the show really is about the pact between audience and players to have a ridiculous, raucous good time. To that end, bring your friends and family. And watch out for the whipped cream.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Fairy (Amy Gorelow)

     
     

REVIEW: Toronto, Mississippi (Mary-Arrchie Theatre)

      
  

Dysfunction Junction, What’s Your Function?

  
  

Eve Rydberg and Daniel Behrendt - Mary-Arrchie Theatre

   
Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents
   
Toronto, Mississippi
   
Written by Joan MacLeod
Directed by
Carlo Lorenzo Garcia
at
Angel Island Theater, 735 W. Sheridan (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $13-$22   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Kitchen sink dramas often spell death for real theatricality. However raw or radical they were post-WWII, overplayed working-class melodramas, set in the same old, worn out living rooms, give audiences little more than rehashed and trite explorations of troubled lives truncated by cramped, dreary social and economic conditions. I had my worries about Toronto, Mississippi, which is enjoying its Midwest premiere at Mary-Arrchie Theatre under the direction of Carlo Lorenzo Garcia. Certainly its set design (William Anderson) has “Momma-on-the-couch-play” written all over it. But Garcia has honed his cast to make the audience see the particular beauty of Joan MacLeod’s mercurial script and also what is thoroughly special about these characters.

Daniel Behrendt, Eve Rydberg, Luke Renn in Toronto Mississippi - Mary-Arrchie TheatreTo that end, no young actor could be better cast to take on the role of a mentally handicapped teenage girl than Eve Rydberg. She plays18-year old Jhana, a young woman roiled by adolescent, hormonal drives for independence and sexual exploration, but who still needs daily training to remember her home address and how to dial 911 in the case of emergency. Jhana’s developmental challenges require a tight leash and perpetual watchfulness over her exceptionally vulnerable future. Her mother, Maddie (Laura Sturm), seems quite used to playing hardball with Jhana, whether she’s firmly and patiently correcting her inappropriate emotional outbursts or confronting her about her crappy work performance at “The Workshop,” a place that employs the developmentally challenged.

Rydberg and Sturm make a beautifully realistic mother-daughter team. Sturm definitely sculpts Maddie’s demeanor and body language to reflect the wear and strain of constant tending to Jhana’s needs. But one equally feels secure in the presence of Sturm’s performance. The way she strides across the living room, treating the difficulties of raising a specially challenged daughter like an everyday thing, evokes Maddie’s inner toughness and resiliency in the face Sisyphean duty.

Yet the play clearly belongs to Jhana. She is not this family’s burden, but its star. Classed vaguely by medical experts as having “soft autism,” Jhana’s way of perceiving and communicating with the world could only be defined as fragmented pastiche. The loved ones around her must interpret her jumbled words and gestures intuitively to understand her. Lucky for the audience, Jhana’s emotions are always on the surface. She’s incapable of hiding them away, either out of deception or self-deception. Watching Rydberg nail every emotional moment and gesture in Jhana’s journey is truly the overriding delight of this production.

That leaves the men of the play who, besides being flawed with their own particular obsessions and weaknesses, get an uneven interpretation from the actors. Bill (Daniel Behrendt) is the struggling and frustrated poet who boards at Maddie’s house. Behrendt delivers a bountifully sympathetic performance through Bill’s generous, funny and empathic relationship with Jhana. Only by increments do we discover Bill’s bitter neuroses over women, at least until the arrival of “the King” awakens them to full ugly glory. King (Luke Renn), Maddie’s ex and Jhana’s dad, is a traveling Elvis impersonator who shows up when it suits him. Clearly a guy who believes in living his legend—even if it is somebody else’s legend—King darkens Maddie’s door once more for a little ex-sex, Eve Rydberg and Luke Renn - Mary-Arrchie Theatresome filial adoration from Jhana and a general lifestyle regrouping.

Jhana is not the dysfunctional one as her dysfunctions are excusable because they can be explained away by her disability. But Maddie, King and Bill’s dysfunctions are also understandable. They want to be more than what they are; they want to have a life that meets their dreams; they want what they don’t have, might never have, and that alone leads to lives of quiet, or not so quiet, desperation. Their dreary day-to-day malaise is ours. Yet the actors have to particularize, in exacting detail, each of their character’s individual malaises in order to capture our attention before our eyes glaze over at the sight of another working-class stereotype.

There is really nothing normal about normal. The devil is in the details; the devil is also in MacLeod’s sparsely poetic language. Bill’s definition for poetry is nothing less than MacLeod’s strategy for laying out her dialogue: “Poetry is at its best when no one knows what’s going on.” Rather, the meaning of what’s poetically said can only be intuited from the emotional impact that the actor deduces from subtext. The audience needs to grasp all the subtext of Bill and King’s territorial pissing contests, no matter what poetic depths MacLeod’s script strays into. What’s more, Sturm and and Renn need to take the latent chemistry between Maddie and King and notch it up a skotch. That’s the only way to make the assignation of this otherwise tough and pragmatic lady more realistic.

Since the production can resolve these issues in the course of the run, I urge people to make time for Toronto, Mississippi. MacLeod’s script is not the same old kitchen sink. Rydberg’s performance elevates the play’s message about the unique beauty of every individual’s self-expression to lovingly brilliant heights. Jhana’s small victories make the grey drudgery in her world shrink away. Would that we faced each day with the same perspective.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Daniel Behrendt, Laura Sturm, Eve Rydberg, Luke Renn - Mary-Arrchie Theatre

Production Personnel

Directed by Carlo Lorenzo Garcia
Featuring: Daniel Behrendt, Eve Rydberg, Luke Renn, & Laura Sturm.
Designers include Bill Anderson (set), Stefin Steberl (costumes), Matt Gawryk (lighting design), Carlo Lorenzo Garcia (sound design), CoCo Ree Lemery (paint charge), Mary Patchell (stage manager)

  
  

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REVIEW: Berwyn Avenue (Von Orthal Puppets)

  
  

Puppets don’t make up for unlikable characters

  
  

Berwyn Avenue - Von Orthal Puppets

   
Von Orthal Puppets presents
   
Berwyn Avenue
   
Written by Cynthia Von Orthal
Directed by Cynthia Von Orthal and Tiffany Lange
at Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $15   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

I get that Berwyn Avenue is supposed to be a 1970s kitchen sink drama about blue-collar life in Chicago. And on some levels, the play, produced by Von Orthal Puppets, achieves this.

The characters like to drink and bowl. They all have heavy Chicago accents. And at dinnertime, the parents call out for their kids, who run loose through the neighborhood. It may be stereotypical, but for some, this was reality. However, I give less credit to the constant peppering of 1970s references throughout the play. There are just too many forced mentions of nostalgia, including nods to quick tan and the singing nun.

Still, a good story and engaging characters could have made this play. Alas, an uneven plot and unlikable characters nearly destroy it.

Berwyn Avenue focuses on a slice of Gay Martini’s life. Gay is the mother of seven children and the wife to a deadbeat drunk fireman. She chats on the phone to her best friend Babs Blahute about items she put on layaway at Sears and cooks up Kraft dinners at night for the kids. Her 15th anniversary is on the horizon, and she’s planning a big barbecue to celebrate the event, despite the fact that her husband hasn’t made it home in more than two days.

Meanwhile, Babs’ tomboyish daughter Sin and Gay’s son Scooter have a close-knit friendship. The two spend nights over at each other’s houses and stay up late telling scary stories. Eventually the lives of both families are shaken to the core when tragedy strikes one of the children.

The plot is all over the place. One minute we’re focusing on Gay and her marital problems, the next we’re focusing on Barb’s husband and his affinity for Gay, then we delve into Gay’s husband’s love for Barb, then we visit with the kids for a while. It’s dizzying and only serves to drag the play down, both in coherency and pacing. The climactic anniversary barbecue ends up being fairly anticlimactic, save for the deus ex machina in the form of the aforementioned child tragedy.

Worse though are the unlikable characters. I know Cynthia Von Orthal, who wrote and directed the piece, was trying to make Gay into a tough but loving mother figure. But she’s just so negative that it’s a chore to try to like her at all. In fact, that applies to all the characters. Everyone wallows in their mildly tragic lives to the point that the only feelings evoked are pity and contempt.

The set design and puppetry, both credited to Von Orthal Puppets, are enjoyable. The puppeteers are talented, and sometimes the technical feats alone redeem scenes.

A sharper script and more dynamic characters could fix the flaws in Berwyn Avenue. In its current form, the puppetry is the production’s highlight. Unfortunately, it’s just not enough to carry the show.

       
      
Rating: ★★
      
     

NOTE: This show is not appropriate for children

   
   

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