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



Cynthia Von Orthal (playwright and artistic director) is an actress, writer, teacher, director and artistic director for Von Orthal Puppets. She has performed at many theaters across the country and in Europe including The Goodman, Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, Lifeline, City Lit, Running with Scissors, Redmoon Theater, The Incurable Theater, Actors Gang and The Mark Tapor Forum in Los Angeles, Trejnar Studios in Prague, Czech Republic. While at Hystopolis Puppet Theater, Cynthia co-created an all-puppet version of The Adding Machine, which won an International UNIMA Award for Excellence in Puppetry. Her film and television credits include A League of Their Own, Date Night, Diagnosis Trauma, Roseanne, Early Edition and Fuzzy Buddies. Most recently, Von Orthal Puppets collaborated with Adventure Stage Chicago in a production of Lois Lowry’s Gossamer.

Tiffany Lange (co-director) is an artist, designer and children’s book illustrator with her company, The MadeUp Studio. She has been a puppet designer and teacher for Von Orthal Puppets since 2000. Tiffany has co-designed several shows for Von Orthal Puppets, including The Yellow Wallpaper performed at Links Hall, The Point performed at the Old Town School of Folk Music and Gossamer performed at the Vittum Theater in collaboration with Adventure Stage Chicago. She has a bachelor’s degree in fine art and biology and a master’s degree in medical illustration.

Paul von Mertens (sound design) is musical director for Von Orthal Puppets. He is a member of Brian Wilson’s recording and touring band and Chicago’s Poi Dog Pondering. Paul can be heard on recordings by the Chicago Jazz Ensemble, Stereolab, The Pulsars, Sea and Cake, Archer Prewitt, Mavis Staples and many radio and television commercials. His writing credits include music for the Peabody Award–winning documentary The Lost Children of Rockdale County for Frontline, Steppenwolf Theater’s production of Buried Child and arrangements for Japanese pop sensation Akito. Paul also wrote the orchestral arrangements for Brian Wilson’s Pet Sounds symphonic tour and was invited to play Queen Elizabeth’s Golden Jubilee.

The design team includes Cynthia Von Orthal, Tiffany Lange (puppet design), Karen Hoffman (set design), Michael Reed (lighting design), Deb Lindell (prop design) and the Von Orthal Puppets team (puppet design).


Von Orthal Puppets is composed of a group of Chicago-based artists dedicated to bringing quality cultural experiences in the puppetry arts to both children and adults. Through an integration of story, music and various puppetry techniques, Von Orthal Puppets strives to bring this ancient and magical art form to life.

           Von Orthal Puppets has been captivating audiences for over a decade with a unique combination of traditional European, Japanese and American puppetry techniques. The Von Orthal Puppets style blends imagination, music, story and expressively alive characters known for high artistic quality.


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