REVIEW: Bri-Ko: All Silent. All Funny (Stage 773)

  
  

A barrel of laughs and fun for everyone – don’t miss it!

  
  

tim Soszka, Brian Posen, Brian Peterlin in Bri-Ko at Stage 773 Chicago

   
Stage 773 presents
   
Bri-Ko: All Silent. All Funny
   
Written/directed by the Ensemble
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through Jan 2  |  tickets: $12-$18   | more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Whenever I am in the Stage 773, (a.k.a. Theatre Building) area, I make a stop at Uncle Fun. I am a whoopie cushion and chattering wind-up-teeth kind of gal, which made Uncle Fun the perfect stop before Bri-Ko: All Silent. All Funny. I rarely have any expectations before a production that I review but Bri-Ko has a history in Chicago and it turns out a well-deserved one.

The set is dressed in all white with bare hanging bulbs. A set of three lab coats, construction helmets, and goggles lay on white stackable chairs. Enter Brian Posen, Brian Peterlin, and Tim Soszko: three guys with a wonderful comic aura the minute they step onto the stage. A dramatic donning of the lab coats to the requisite rubber gloves begins a hilarious 70-minutes of visual shennanigans with a lovely dark undertone and a healthy dose of making a mess.

Bri-KoI first wondered if this was going to be a "Blue Man Group" experience, which I don’t particularly enjoy. I am happy to report that Bri-Ko:All Silent. All Funny is built on a number of traditions without the visual and sound overload of the aforementione group. Indeed, less is more in the case of Bri-Ko

Posen, Peterlin, and Soszco are Everymen put into everyday situations with absurd twists. These are the guys that no doubt were suspended for practical jokes and bringing Mad Magazine books to catechism class. They are the kids who were way smarter than anyone figured and did everything over the top.

A simple act of eating a marshmallow becomes an experiment in torturing the straight man with tape measures. Changing a light bulb is an exercise in extremes with everyday objects, all backed by the music of Electric Light Orchestra.

This is comedy in the tradition of the great Ernie Kovacs, vaudeville, and great modern clowns such as Red Skelton or Bill Irwin. The craft of the perfect expression and movement is a disappearing art in this age of uber-realism and high definition. A return to simplicity is the perfect antidote for overloaded technology. Bri-Ko pares everything down to make a wonderful concoction of mayhem and gleeful insanity.

The trio adds shades of satire in every skit. “Bedtime Before Christmas Morning” is a combination of Hardy with two Stan Laurels. Striped pajamas and nightcaps (the head cover not the whiskey shot kind) are put on and then prayers are said. Two say Christian prayers and the third pulls out a hat with earlocks and a prayer shawl. It mocks and alludes to political correctness all at once to great effect and good laughs.

Posen/Peterlin/Soszko make genius use of everyday toys such as the revered hackey sack. “The Death of the Hackey Sack” is a twisted and dark play on consumerism in life and death. This bit is worth the price of the ticket alone. The trio portray the wonderful innocence of children in imagining personalities for the hackey sacks. When the toys inanimately fall to the floor, the 3 show their sorrow by performing an elaborate death ritual. They embalm the sacks with sugary breakfast cereal which probably has a nuclear half life. Three separate funerals ensue. The first is a military affair with a 21-Nerfball salute; an expertly folded tiny American flag presented to an audience member. The second ceremony is a coffee can cremation with the ashes interred in a vase and placed on a shelf. The third is a Hunter S. Thompson affair where the deceased hackey sack is shot into space with cross bow. This was my favorite if for nothing other than my own love of Thompson and the altered consciousness slant on his afterlife.

Another genius skit is what I call “The Crazy Circuit Breaker Box”. Two of the trio accidentally discover a circuit breaker box while the third sits in a wall box, polishing a surviving hackey sack. Each of the breakers causes a different effect including sending shock waves into the hackey sack polisher. One breaker causes a carhop on roller skates to roll by with a hamburger on a tray much to the duo’s delight. Another flip sends out the carhop with juice boxes that they literally drain until the boxes fold over. The third guy gets out of the box and joins them as they introduce him to the magic breaker box. They dim lights, get hamburgers on wheels, and then shock him as a joke. The joke is on them when the guy enjoys the shocks with a sublime smirk on his face. He convulses in ecstasy and tries to keep going but they intervene with faux intervention concern.

Bri-Ko - Stage 773 Chicago Bri-Ko - Stage 773 Chicago Bri-Ko - Stage 773 Chicago

The last part of the show gets more interactive and really messy. A hilarious sketch of lettuce to bio-fuel segues into a made-to-order menu that the audience members can order from the chef on stage. He searches through a giant bowl of water balloons and chucks them into the audience. One person orders split pea soup that is water turned green much to their relief. However, in the great tradition of vaudeville and the holy trio of Moe, Larry, and Curly, a cream pie is a cream pie smooshed in the face of a planted audience member!

Other highlights are a pantomime/sign language rendition of Wilson-Phillips "Hold on For One More Day". The sight of three very manly men acting out such a chirpy chick song gets huge laughs. Another stab at treacly pop culture is what I call “Waiting for Gumball” whereupon two of the trio get gumballs from a giant chute filled with gumballs. The chute doesn’t work for the third of the trio and he goes fetal to Lionel Ritchie’s "Hello". It’s a side bender but all is well in the end. Gumballs, lettuce, Nerfs bb’s and ping pong ball are everywhere. It is as if the bad kids from the block came over and wrecked my room and I loved it.

This is a great family holiday show to forget the chaos of shopping and acquisition. There is nothing like controlled mayhem and madness for the holidays. Watch out for flying lettuce!

   
  
Rating: ★★★½
   

 

Bri-Ko

Bri-Ko

Bri-Ko

     

Bri-Ko:All Silent. All Funny is appropriate for some children. I would suggest over the age of 5 – unless you have done some explaining about death and what is appropriate to try at home. This is a messy show so don’t go wearing your prissiest cashmere or Eiffel Tower hair. Your cashmere will get and your tower of hair will fall. It is a lot of fun and an opportunity to not be uptight for an hour or so. And if you’re nimble there is free gum!

Bri-Ko:All Silent. All Funny plays Fridays and Saturdays ant 7:30pm and Sundays at 2:00pm through January 2nd. There are no performances on December 24th, 25th or January 1st. There is a special New Years Eve kiddie show with balloon animals and kiddie cocktails. Stage 773 is at 1225 W. Belmont in the heart of Lakeview. It is accessible by public transportation and there is valet parking for $10.

        
       

REVIEW: Jenny & Jenni (Factory Theater)

     
     

Funky Freestyle Aerobic Friendship

     
     

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The Factory Theater presents
   
Jenny & Jenni
   
Written by Shannon O’Neill
Directed by Laura McKenzie
at
Prop Thtr, 3504 N. Elston  (map)
through Dec 18 |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Heaven only knows what drugs inspired Shannon O’Neill’s disco-fevered aerobic dance flashback, but Jenny & Jenni, a new comedy produced by The Factory Theater at Prop Theatre’s space, throws down a litany of 1970’s zaniness like no other. The show begins with the claim that—forget Jane Fonda–these two fictional exercise queens were the real start of the 70’s workout craze. Jenny (Shannon O’Neill), spelled normally with a “y,” and Jenni (Christine Jennings), spelled weirdly with an “i,” are high school rejects with crappy, self-absorbed and neglectful parents. They find each other and take the audience on a ride through every absurd 70’s trend with all the Jenny and Jenni posterhyped-up positive outlook of your favorite 70’s sitcom.

Laura McKenzie directs this picaresque ode to the evolutionary beginnings of jazzercise, spandex, and headbands. The show comes in under two and a half hours but for all that, McKenzie runs a tight, organized and whipsmart ensemble. Even transitions between scenes are choreographed with military precision to keep energy up and the fun going; the cast drives the show from beginning to end at an exacting pace. 70’s tunes dominate the dance/aerobic choreography of Donnell Williams, so rest assured the actors are feeling the burn while they joke about feeling it.

By far, the comedy standouts are Nick Leininger, taking on roles such as a smarmy Health Teacher and an encounter group leader, among others. William Bullion makes yet another deadpan funny fringe appearance as Riggins, the principal of Jenny and Jenni’s high school, who is absolutely plum loco about Scottish heritage. High school archenemy Lola St. James (Aileen May) and her gang of mean girls (Kathryn Hribar, Elizabeth Levy, Kim Boler and Sarah Scanlon) try to keep Jenny and Jenni down but Mr. Riggins gives them their first big morale boost to hit the road and build their aerobic workout dream.

Jenny & Jenni has a wild assortment of hilarious scenes. There’s the Scottish Highland Dance competition with Mr. Riggins and his stiff, proper Scottish sidekick, Aidan (Ted Evans). There’s the hallucinogenic drug scene, when, Jenny and Jenni posterdemoralized, Jenny and Jenni lose track of their dream and go off on wild benders of their own. There’s the encounter group session—a scene that deserves its own award for bringing back hysterical reminders of the prevalence of Me Generation pop psychology. There’s the reintroduction of Kathryn Hribar as Crazy Person, which single-handedly manages to amp up the crazy quotient for the whole second act.

The show could still use a strong editorial hand. The aerobic dance-off between Jenny and Jenni’s entourage versus Lola St. James’ Studio 54-style entourage veers into train wreck territory and loses its comic impact. Plus, the show tries for a sweet and happy ending with a reformed Lola seeing the error of her ways. The transformation is neither emotionally convincing nor even necessary, comically speaking. As for the friendship between Jenny and Jenni, O’Neill and Jennings have a wonderfully simple, understated and convincing bond but more humor could be made of their fabulously bizarre, mutual desire to get down and boogie-oogie-oogie.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
      
     

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Ensemble

Wm. Bullion, Kim Boler, Matt Engle, Ted Evans, Kathyrn Hribar, Christine Jennings, Nick Leininger, Elizabeth Levy, Aileen May, Shannon O’Neill, Sarah Scanlon

Production and Creative Team

Directed By: Laura McKenzie
Written by: Shannon O’Neill
Produced by: Manny Tamayo & Timothy C. Amos
Scenic Designer: Ian Zywica
Sound Designer: Brian Lucas
Lighting Designer: Jordan Kardasz
Costume Designer: Emma Weber
Technical Director: Dan Laushman
Choreographer: Donnell Williams
Props Master: Josh Graves
Stage Manager: Allison Queen
Asst. Stage Manager: Christina Dougherty
Graphic Designer: Jason Moody

Original Music By: Laura McKenzie

 
 

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REVIEW: The Wizard of Oz (Emerald City Theatre)

     
     

Learning to love the things you’ve had all along

     
     

Wizard of Oz - Emerald City Theatre

   
Emerald City Theatre presents
   
The Wizard of Oz
   
Written by L. Frank Baum, Adapted by John Kane
Music/Lyrics by
Harold Arlen and E.Y. Harburg
Directed by
Ernie Nolan
at
Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
Through Jan 2  |  tickets: $13-$16  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

I love children’s theater because the audience’s limited attention span forces wild, fearless performances from the actors as they try to hold the concentration of both children and parents. Emerald City Theatre is one of the city’s premier children’s theater companies, and their holiday production of The Wizard of Oz incorporates audience interaction and puppetry to create a visually exciting production that understands the actor/child dynamic. The actors give unbridled performances that keep the momentum moving briskly, and while they might not be the strongest in term of technique, they make up for it by having so much fun in their characters.

Molly Tower as Glinda the Good Witch - Emerald City TheatreEmerald City’s production High School Musical­-izes Arlen and Harburg’s score with a rhythm section and guitars, but the songs never lose their classic appeal. Karle’s “Somewhere Over The Rainbow” is a rousing number that captures Dorothy’s desire to find a world outside the dreariness of the Kansas countryside, and the actress’s effortless belt gets the show off to a great start. In Oz, Dorothy is greeted by Glinda’s (a hilariously irreverent Molly Tower) angelic soprano, accompanied by the denizens of Munchkinland.

As she makes her way to the Emerald City, Dorothy encounters new faces, including Scarecrow (Bret Beaudry), who serves as a major source of physical comedy throughout the show. Tinman (James Nedrud) is cleverly portrayed as an Elvis-like crooner and carries a guitar for an axe, appropriate for the Million Dollar Quartet housing Apollo Theater, and Nedrud has a smooth vocal quality that is perfect for the character. The only one of Dorothy’s new friends that struggles is Lion (Shea Coffman), and the difficulty of the character’s music isn’t helped by the ornaments Coffman adds to almost every sustained note.

Using puppets for the munchkins is hilarious and efficient, and the low-budget shortcuts that Emerald City takes contribute to much of the show’s charm. Kevin Beltz’s economical set unfolds Dorothy’s house to reveal walls with turning panels to signify location, all located in the walls of Dorothy’s home that unfolds during the storm. It’s a great effect that also saves a lot of money on scenery. Despite not being the most technically astounding or polished production, the show’s simplicity and dedicated ensemble make Dorothy’s journey through Oz easy for kids to enjoy while still entertaining for adults.

If I only had a heart by Emerald City Theatre Company Find Her! - The Wicked Witch by Emerald City Theatre Company
If I only had a brain! by Emerald City Theatre Company The Wicked Witch of the West by Emerald City Theatre Company When I am king of the forest by Emerald City Theatre Company

It is surprising how well Baum’s classic story works in a holiday setting, as the storm that whisks Dorothy away, in this production, occurs just before Christmas. Maybe it’s the combination of red and green that comes from ruby slippers – adorably reimagined as glistening ankle-boots – and the Emerald City. More likely, the connection comes from how well Baum taps into the holiday spirit of giving thanks, and taking pleasure in the company of people that will always be there for you. The important part of the holidays isn’t the presents you get, but learning to love the things you’ve had all along.

   
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Off to see the Wizard

        
        

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REVIEW: The New Adventures of Popeye (Factory Theater)

  
  

Strong the to finish, ‘cause they eat their spinach!

   

      
Factory Theater presents
   
The New Adventures of Popeye
   
Directed by Eric Roach
at
Prop Thtr, 3504 N. Elston (map)
through Dec 17   |  tickets: $8   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

The Factory Theater has a late-night theater offering, The New Adventures of Popeye – but one wonders whether it shouldn’t be pared down and placed just before Jenny & Jenni in the way that cartoon shorts used to warm up the audience in movie theaters before the feature. Directed by Eric Roach, with John Moran (Popeye), Sarah Rose Graber (Olive Oyl) and Dave Skvarla (Bluto), the team absolutely nail the Popeye - Factory Theatercartoon mannerisms, voices and movement of their characters. Their goal is to produce Popeye for adults, which in some ways is rather redundant, since the original cartoons always had Popeye mumbling witty asides that the adults could get a chuckle over, while the kids reveled in the cartoon’s hyperbolic physical comedy and routine sparring between Popeye and Bluto over Olive.

Eric Roach and cast (which include Lina Bunte and Colin Milroy) also try to update Popeye with contemporary themes and concerns. For openers, Popeye and Bluto compete in selling their apples at a farmers market. Popeye’s apples are organically grown while Bluto’s reek of harmful chemicals. But the premise comes off as preachy more than funny; even now it’s difficult to see two iconically stereotypical seamen like Popeye and Bluto getting into farming, organic or otherwise.

The other sketches prove to be much funnier: couples-counseling for Popeye and Olive Oyl, the travails of air flight for all three. I wonder if there’s still time to put in material about ex-ray screening and full-body pat downs. Whatever the case, the production comes off much cleaner when returning to the original comic structure of the cartoon, which has always been about two guys fighting over a gal—a skinny, rubbery, mewling kind of gal. Pleasant and pure nostalgia holds the audience, as well as marvel over the ease with which the cast physically and bracingly evokes the cartoon’s clownish effects.

     
  
Rating: ★★½
  

 

Cast

John Moran is Popeye
Sarah Rose Graber* is Olive Oyl
David Skvarla is Bluto
Lina Bunte is Female Koken
Colin Milroy* is Male Koken

Production

Directed by Eric Roach*
Geoff Coates is the Fight Director
Amy C Gilman is the Props Designer
Jason Weinberg is the Stage Manager

   
  

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REVIEW: The Hundred Dresses (Chicago Children’s Theatre)

   
  

Reducing childhood bullying one performance at a time

   
   

The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 001

   
Chicago Children’s Theatre presents
   
The Hundred Dresses
   
Written by Ralph Covert and G. Riley Mills
Directed by
Sean Graney
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through Dec 2   |  tickets: $26-$36  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

One in five students are bullied each year. 60% of students are bystanders to bullying*. Forty-five states, including Illinois, now have anti-bullying legislation. Bullying prevention programs have been shown to reduce school bullying by as much as 50%. To entertain and educate, Chicago Children’s Theatre remounts last season’s smash hit, The Hundred Dresses.

The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 008Peggy is rich. Wanda is poor. Maddie is somewhere in the middle. Clothing makes a fashion statement at Franklin Elementary School. Peggy is mean. Wanda is kind. Maddie is somewhere in the middle. The Hundred Dresses is a light-hearted musical dressed up to teach a powerful lesson. It’s theGlee” episode that harmonizes “Clueless” meets “Mean Girls”.

In their upbeat and high energy antics, these adult actors unleash the cute kid inside. Leslie Ann Sheppard (Maddie) is a shiny-happy sidekick to Natalie Berg’s (Peggy) self-absorbed diva. Berg balances over-the-top narcissism without becoming the villain. Berg charms in clueless oblivion. When she sings ‘you didn’t do anything wrong’ with perky sass, Sheppard’s soulful response ‘but I didn’t do anything right’ heightens in its profound simplicity. Sheppard’s subtle despair is a sweet awakening. The target of the teasing is Briana De Giulio (Wanda). De Giulio sings with hopeful pretend and a thick Polish accent. The interesting underlying story involves the overall acceptance of the other quirky playground kids. Andrew Keltz (Willie) is hysterical, arriving to school in various eccentric ensembles. Superman or robot, he doesn’t disguise his oddball ways that are just understood by the others. Elana Ernst (Cecile)is a tiara wearing, unicorn talking, ballerina wannabe. She looks and sounds like SNL alum, Cheri Oteri, with comedic timing and exasperated expressions to match. Geoff Rice (Jack) is the understated dreamer with a confident independence. The kids bond in a celebration of individuality.

Under the direction of Sean Graney and choreography of Tommy Rapley, the playful style is like a nursery rhyme game. It seems like it’s all fun and games until you really listen to the words. Jacqueline Firkins conjures up the perfect wardrobe to focus on dresses. The girls’ dresses are marvelously vibrant 50’s style. Watching the cast change it up, certainly promotes clothing envy. Is it the costumes? Is it the singing? Is it the dancing? Is it the cast? There are probably over 100 reasons to see The Hundred Dresses. The most important one is ‘because doing nothing is the worst of all.’ As grown-ups, we need to act to stop the bullying in schools. An easy and entertaining way is to take a kid or two (or a classroom!) to this production, which helps kids learn important life lessons in an entertaining way. Go see it!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
    
   

The Hundred Dresses plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 10:30 a.m; Saturdays and Sundays at 1p.m.    Running time is sixy minutes with no intermission. *Statistics about bullying from Newsweek Magazine, October 10 issue.

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All press photos by Michael Brosilow

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