REVIEW: A Christmas Carl (Chicago dell’Arte)

  
  

A Lot of Predictable, a Little Perverse

  
  

A Christmas Carl - Poster

  
Chicago dell’Arte presents
  
A Christmas Carl
  
Created and Directed by Ned Record
at
The RBP Rorschach, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
through Dec 22  |  tickets: $15   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

What is it about formulaic Christmas stories that we return to again and again each holiday season? Does their familiarity comfort and reassure? Is there something in the ritual retelling of Christmas stories that really re-awakens warmth and goodwill? Chicago dell’Arte’s A Christmas Carl, now onstage at Right Brain Project Rorshach, comes across like a new flavored bag of Doritos—it’s still Doritos, but with a different coating than the Cool Ranch or Nacho Cheese varieties. Creator and director Ned Record revamps Charles Dickens’ tale with Tex-Mex flavor but with limited success. The real value of A Christmas Carl is not how closely it adheres to tradition, but in the dippy trips it takes into delightful perversity.

In fact, the production itself seems rather bored with same old Christmas story. Charlene Dickens (Joanna P. Lind) gets stranded in Cleburne, Texas, once her transmission goes out on her way to Nashville. She waits endlessly in Scrooge’s Auto Body Shop, where there are obviously more than a few screws loose. Bob Ratchet (Derek Jarvis) can hardly keep his attention on one line of conversation, let alone the engine block, and Juan (Christopher Thies-Lotito), feigning ignorance of the English language, is hardly decent help. Owner Carl Scrooge (Nick Freed) only paces back and forth from reception to garage, never getting his hands dirty himself and never needing to deliver a “bah, humbug” over giving his employees time off for Christmas day. His flat deadpan drawl more than indicates utter disinterest in holiday merriment or goodwill toward men.

If only the play didn’t lag as much as action in the garage. Charlene’s plans to turn Carl around, by the ritual introduction of the three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, go dreadfully slow and haltingly predictable. Leading Carl through his paces to Christmas redemption would be excruciating if not for the delightfully freakish presence of Fred (Aaron Kirby), the Goth boyfriend of Carl’s sister, Fran (Jessica Record), and a monomaniacal performance artist trained by none other than the ITT Technical Institute.

What saves A Christmas Carl from Christmas death is the triple-espresso shot of perversity in Kirby’s performance. In fact, Fred steals the show. He becomes the center to A Christmas Carl more than Carl, a terribly interesting wrinkle if this play is, indeed, a Christmas story wrought from the heart of Texas. Clearly, then, Cleburne is not exactly Sarah Palin country or, at least, it is not an America that Sarah Palin prefers to portray. Rather, it’s an America that belongs to the freaks. Even the couples’ exercises enacted by Bob and his wife Emily (Holly Portman) take a charmingly flaky detour from the main action and create a playful space in which only their childlike resolutions matter. That development alone has got to be tidings of comfort and joy to some out there.

Would that Record had taken even more chances with Dicken’s staid and over-familiar tale. The result may have been a wild, fresh and new seasonal classic to awaken audiences from the holiday doldrums.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
   

 

REVIEW: The Observatory (Viable Theatre Company)

     
    

Treading lightly on show’s darkest themes

     
    

 

The Observatory by Vincent Truman

 
Viable Theatre Company presents
   
The Observatory
  
Written/Directed by Vincent Truman
at
The Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton  (map)
through Dec 18   |  tickets: $12-$15   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

As necessary a play as The Observatory is, far better to consider it a work in progress than an actual finished product. Viable Theatre Company has mounted it at the Charnel House where its very stark and simple surroundings reflect the writing exactly—a great idea in need of further in-depth development.

Playwright/Director Vincent Truman and assistant directly Angela Jo Strohm bring us the tale of David (Colin Fewell) and Sally (Kasey O’Brien), a young married couple renting out their attic for sorely needed extra cash. The thing is, they rent it out to the government in order to create an “observatory,” a place from which David is contracted to keep eye on a stranger held in detention as part of the War on Terror. Imprisoned in solitary The Observatory by Vincent Truman 2confinement at an unknown location, a 3-D hologram image of the detainee is to be beamed into their attic for David to watch and await a confession. CIA program director Victor (Vincent Truman) reassures David there will be no torture–but David is under contract to not disclose anything he has observed with anyone, including his wife. Also, Sally must never enter the attic when the hologram is being beamed in. Sally and David accept these conditions in anticipation of hundreds of thousands of dollars in return.

Sally already voices qualms about the ethics of David quitting his teaching job and becoming an observer but her consternation really begins once curiosity gets the better of her and she enters the new observatory when the hologram is on. There, she finds David watching a young and attractive female prisoner, Marissa (Kate Lane). From then on, their marriage deteriorates due to Sally’s jealousy and David’s inability to keep his stultifying job as an observer from overtaking his entire life. David’s sexual interest in Marissa grows and their relationship intensifies once he discovers that, from some technological snafu, they can actually communicate with each other.

Given that America has been sucked into a moral morass over torture and indefinite detention, a hellhole from which the Obama administration will not extricate us or even ameliorate, a play like The Observatory couldn’t be timelier. However, Truman’s writing focuses more on the sexual interest between David and Marissa rather than taking bigger risks and digging deeper into his dangerous material. Private Bradley Manning, currently held at Quantico, VA for delivering thousands of government documents to Wikileaks, now shows signs of mental deterioration due to the same solitary confinement conditions that Marissa endures during the play. Lane’s intensity in her portrayal of Marissa is laudable but lacks nuance, given the psychological stress solitary confinement works on the human mind.

Likewise, the play leaves the rest of its characters functioning at a 2-dimensional level and its resolution also strikes exceedingly simplistic moral chords. It’s almost as if the playwright had a failure of nerve, willing to open up torture’s sadistic can of worms but too scared to plunge in. The result is a light skate on top of The Observatory’s frozen surface, where we can still imagine ourselves distant and untouched by the ugliness beneath.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

  
 

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REVIEW: Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer

  
  

The Queer Meaning of Christmas: Always Be Yourself

  
  

Rudolph finale by David as Joan

  
Hell in a Handbag Productions presents
   
Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer
   
Book/Lyrics by David Cerda 
Music by
David Cerda w/ Scott Lamberty
Directed by
Derek Czaplewski
at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark (map)
through Jan 1  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Hell In a Handbag Productions have run their queerlicious holiday spoof, Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer for 13 years, yet it’s Christmas theme could not be more current or relevant than if it were written yesterday. Directed by Derek Czaplewski, this Santa Claus (Michael Hampton) is as Scrooge as they come, running the North Pole like a sweatshop. His terrorized elf population scrambles for job security since he’s outsourced most of the toy manufacturing to India. To generate extra income, Santa cynically develops a series of reality TV Mrs. Claus loses her balance. by David as Joanshows for NPN (North Pole Network). Sam the Snowman (Christopher Carpenter) lays out the whole scene with casual and realistic world-weariness, just right for this particular recessionary season.

Into this milieu, Jane (Danni Smith) and Tom Donner (Chad) give birth to Rudolph (Alex Grelle), a sweet little reindeer with an instinctual love for feminine attire. Fresh from the womb, Rudolph can already spot Chanel and Prada on other women and lusts in his heart to wear them himself. But mom and dad fear gender non-conformity just won’t go over well in the gossipy and economically strapped environs of Christmastown. So, they force Rudolph into overalls and trot him out to the reindeer games to put a little butch into his act.

The big butch of the reindeer games, Coach Comet (David Besky), uses his position to put the moves on his young reindeer charges. But, like any classic closet case, he – like everyone else – rejects Rudolph when his unstoppable femme side emerges. While reviling base hypocrisy is de rigueur element for LGBTQ comedy, Hell in a Handbag’s spry and professional cast keeps to the situation fresh, the jokes well-timed and humanely on message. David Cerda’s humorous script holds up fabulously well; it helps that the original Christmas cartoon is also about being yourself, no matter what societal pressures deny who and what you are. Cerda and crew boost the original cartoon with a ton of salacious queer fun and Brigitte Ditmars’ choreography makes the most of a tight stage at Mary’s Attic.

     
Trailer Trash Barbie by David as Joan Meet Coach Comet by David as Joan
The Dragbeast! The Abominable Dragbeast (David Cerda, center) massacre's a Lady Gag_0007 North Pole Smackdown by David as Joan

Rudolph loses the town’s support but gains a reindeer girlfriend, Clarice (Jennifer Shine), who regales the audience with how HOT his red hose make her. Then there’s Rudolph’s ally Herbie, the elf who wants to be a dentist, who Dan Hickey executes with nostalgic and dorky perfection. Once this pair make it to the Island of Misfit Toys, the audience not only gets to revel in Chad’s exact portrayal of Charlie-in-the-Box, but also the Half-Naked Cowboy (Chad Ramsey), Trailer Trash Barbie (Terry McCarthy) and the Choo-Choo Train (Barbara Figgins) with square wheels.

That Cerda, as the Abominable Drag Beast, tries her grab at fame in a Gaga-esque meat dress, while Ed Jones goes beyond the beyond as Santa’s drunken wife, puts the cherry and nuts on top of Hell in a Handbag’s confection. It’s so bad it’s good for you. But most of all, for all its celebration of pervy practices, Rudolph, the Red-Hosed Reindeer restores a little innocent sweetness to a holiday made hard, jaded and meaningless by rampant commercialism. Always be yourself—that’s the best Christmas message I’ve heard in a long time and something meant to last the whole year round.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Christmastown! by David as Joan

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