REVIEW: Short Shakespeare! Macbeth (Chicago Shakes)

  
  

An exciting introduction to Shakespeare’s ‘Macbeth’

  
  

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Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents
  
Short Shakespeare! Macbeth
  
Written by William Shakespeare
Adapted and Directed by
David H. Bell
at
Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand (map)
through March 5  |  tickets: $16-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Ambition. Paranoia. Revenge. Political desires lead to a spiral of destruction and death. Chicago Shakespeare Theater presents Short Shakespeare! Macbeth, a 75-minute adaptation of the Shakespearean classic. A witch predicts Macbeth will be Thane then King. She also predicts Banquo’s sons will be King. Macbeth shares the Short Shakespeare! Macbeth, playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre at Navy Pier.  Photo by Liz Lauren.prophesies with his wife. Lady Macbeth concocts a plan to expedite the process by murdering the current King and framing his staff. The Macbeths murder for the crown. A killing spree ensues to ensure retention of the throne. Although the power-hungry Macbeths are never satiated, their evil acts begin to gnaw at their sanity. Victim apparitions and bloody hallucinations plague their grip on reality. Short Shakespeare! Macbeth is a riveting adaptation with killer visual effects.

Under the adaptation and direction of David Bell, Short Shakespeare! Macbeth detonates from lights up. The talented and ever-moving 14-member cast enters and exits with a frantic urgency. This enthralling pace is enhanced by drumming and flashing lights. The fight scenes are dangerously authentic. The physicality is a choreographed murderous masterpiece. The majority of the cast is clad in black fatigue-like uniforms with boots. Their look, by costume designer Ana Kuzmanic, contrasts with the beautiful, oversized red silk tarp used effectively as a versatile utilitarian prop. The spectacle is a dark, bloody stunner. The entire ensemble delivers the action and verse with passionate perfection. Without leaving the stage, several performers morph into other roles with a minor clothing and major personality adjustment. Dorcas Sowunmi (Witch/Lady MacDuff) hexes with a supernatural presence and then transforms into haunting mortal fatality. Some other standouts, Lesley Bevan (Lady Macbeth) is insanely poignant. Mark L. Montgomery (Macbeth) slaughters with masculine intensity. Bernard Balbot (Porter) drinks up the comedy relief.

Short Shakespeare! Macbeth, playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre at Navy Pier.  Photo by Liz Lauren.The ‘Shorts’ series purpose is to introduce adults and young people to classics. Having seen a three hour version of Macbeth a few months ago, Short Shakespeare! Macbeth is definitely an abbreviated, concentrated alternative. Before the show begins, one of the actors introduces the style of the Shakespearean prose. His shared analogy is imagining the verse like ‘listening to a new song.’ The newness requires time to begin to understand the words. Following the opening show, a fifteen minute Q&A was held with the entire cast and audience. It was another way to break down the mystique of Shakespeare’s works. For Short Shakespeare! Macbeth, I was joined by two young people. The fast-paced action kept their interest. Except for few points of clarity, the ten year old understood the basic storyline. In fact, she was intrigued to ‘see the movie’ or ‘read the book.’ The eight year old was confused but enjoyed the live theatrical experience. In their own words…

Dominque (10 years old): ‘good, non-fiction, real life,’ Kaleb (8 years old): ‘fantastic, realistic, cast is great’ and Lashawnda: ‘visual, choreography, understandable.’

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission

Short Shakespeare! Macbeth, playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre at Navy Pier.  Photo by Liz Lauren. Short Shakespeare! Macbeth, playing at Chicago Shakespeare Theatre at Navy Pier.  Photo by Liz Lauren.
      
         

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REVIEW: Dog Sees God (Epic Theatre)

  
  

What happens when the Peanuts gang grows up? It’s not pretty.

  
 

Epic Theatre's "Dog Sees Dog" by Bert V. Royal - now playing at Stage 773

  
Epic Theatre presents
  
Dog Sees God: Confessions of Teenage Blockhead
   
Written by Bert V. Royal
Directed by Scott Adam Johnston & William Hasty
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through Feb 21  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

A play about the “Peanuts” gang as teenagers navigating a contemporary high school setting is ripe with potential. I love seeing beloved characters thrown into unfamiliar environments; Sondheim does it with Into The Woods; Julie Taymor is currently trying with Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. Unfortunately Dog Sees God: Confession of a Teenage Blockhead is more the latter than the former, a misguided mess that takes everything lovable Schultz’s characters and degrades it in a wave of sex, drugs, and utter stupidity. Leaving Epic Theatre’s production, I would have guessed the script was still a first draft, but Dog Sees God has played off-Broadway, with some pretty big names in the cast, too. Apparently the public’s morbid curiosity with seeing childhood icons disgraced is higher than I thought.

Epic Theatre's "Dog Sees Dog" by Bert V. Royal - now playing at Stage 773Dog Sees God begins with CB (Fred Geyer) writing a letter to an undisclosed pen pal, mourning the loss of his beagle after it contracted rabies and killed the little yellow bird that was always around it. Yeah, Snoopy ate Woodstock. It gets much, much worse. After holding a funeral that no one but his sister (Miriam Reuter) shows up to, he ruminates about the nature of life and death with his friend Van (Jason Nelson), a stoner version of Linus that smokes his blanket after his sister and CB burn it. Then we’re introduced to Matt (Matt Hays) the germaphobe, homophobe future version of Pig Pen who does coke before class and gets his kicks by bullying Beethoven (Greg Brew), an alienated Schroeder whose father molested him as a child. Peppermint Patty and Marcie are Tricia (Ashley Preston) and Marcy (Lauren Bourke), stereotypical high school mean girls that sip vodka out of milk cartons while discussing new ways to demean themselves and others. The gang is rounded out by Van’s sister (Nicole Carter), an institutionalized, pyromaniac Lucy who was thrown in an asylum after burning the Little Red-Haired Girl’s curly locks. There they are, the bastardized future selves of the Peanuts gang.

Royal’s script is so cliché-filled that it’s almost as if he were given a list of stereotypical characters and situations in a high school environment. Drinking and drug abuse, abortion, molestation, suicide, bullying, prejudiced jocks, bitchy blondes, the talented, tortured quiet boy…the list goes on and on. The hodgepodge of issues makes the play a disorganized mess, and things happen so quickly that nothing is given time to actually have any sort of emotional gravity. CB kisses Beethoven at a party, and he is immediately ready to accept a homosexual identity because it’s convenient to the story Royal is trying to tell. Who care if it’s completely unrealistic? The entire play is built around bizarre developments, from a completely unnecessary rap interlude by Marcy to everyone’s irrational fear of a “gay disease.” Was this written in 1972? Nope. 2004. In the end, the play’s anti-bullying message comes across as trite, a tacked on epilogue to make the play feel relevant despite the archaic views it presents.

The shameful thing is that there are good actors underneath some of these characters. Geyer, despite being a little too mousy to be one of the “cool kids,” tries to create legitimate conflict in CB although the script is constantly working against him. His first scene with Beethoven is even above average, giving their relationship some believability that will, of course, be completely compromised later. As CB’s sister, Reuter has some strong moments, surprisingly when she performs her one woman show “Cocooning Into Platypus,” which is the kind of juvenile theater piece a high school goth would write. But this isn’t a high school play, this is professional theater with paying patrons, and they shouldn’t have to sit and watch derivative scene after derivative scene.

As messy as the script is, the direction from Johnston and Hasty only serves to muddle up the production further. During the party scene, six actors are all crammed onto one platform, attempting to create the illusion of a crowded party but mostly just looking uncomfortable. One of the play’s most important moments happens during this scene, but the poor blocking takes away its resonance. The production values are minimal, from the sloppy set to the limited lighting and sound that make the show feel incomplete to a large degree.

From the script to the staging, Dog Sees God: Confession of a Teenage Blockhead is like Charlie Brown and the football. It keeps on kicking, and it keeps on missing. Glorified fan-fiction at its best, low-grade smut at its worst, this play goes against everything Schultz’s characters stand for. The play ends with an attempt to honor the “Peanuts” creator, but after 90 minutes of watching Charlie Brown and his friends humiliate themselves, it’s just offensive.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

REVIEW: A Doll’s House (Infamous Commonwealth)

  
  

Time-warping Ibsen to 1962 creates mixed results

  
  

Kate Cares and Stephen Dunn in Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House", presented by Infamous Commonwealth Theatre

  
Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents
  
A Doll’s House
  
Written by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Christopher Hampton
Directed by
Chris Maher
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

In traditional A Doll’s House productions, when Nora makes her infamous Act III departure, she’s presumably venturing out into a 19th-century world completely unaccustomed to female independence, her fate a mystery. During the last five minutes before the curtain closes, the Norwegian housewife becomes a radical icon for feminist and theatrical scholars to likely debate over for centuries to come.

Place that same ending in a 1962 New York apartment, and what happens? When Nora grabs her suitcase and heads for the door, we already know that a revolutionary wave of women’s liberation is waiting on the other side. Is she taking a risk? Sure. But is it still an iconic one? Not really. In fact, give her a month or two on her friend’s couch, and she’ll probably be fine.

Infamous Commonwealth Theatre debuts its sacrifice-themed 2011 season with this half-hearted update on A Doll’s House, directed by ICT Artistic Director Chris Maher.

Conceptually, a 60’s “Doll’s House” has potential, which a few glimmers of inspiration confirm. As Nora (played competently by Kate Cares) sashays around in her meticulously clean, gold-wallpapered home, she’s underscored by records of the era’s heart-tugging Christmas carols. Even when her family is on the verge of collapse, she maintains a pure, innocent image, not unlike the 60’s themselves—a turbulent decade ironically synonymous with child-like Technicolor and simplicity.

If only Maher took his idea further. Save for some cubed ice and retro furniture, there’s very little adaptation from more classic productions, and no, the inclusion of an excerpt from Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” in the Playbill is not enough. The lack of investment is especially troublesome when it comes to the play’s language. Instead of highlighting A Doll’s House’s contemporary parallels, the semi-update mostly just brings forth the play’s inherent melodrama. Stephen Dunn (Torvald) deserves extra credit for being able to utter lines like “I don’t want any melodramatics!” without wincing, given the entirety of the play until that point is just that.

It’s all moot, really, since Maher’s production is hindered by elements far more basic than concept. Casting is the most notable.

As Krogstad, baby-faced Josh Atkins neither looks nor sounds the part of a blackmailing antagonist. Nothing states that Nora’s nemesis has to be a deep-voiced, brooding menace, but Atkins presumes that archetype while not having any of the physical or vocal characteristics to back it up. The result resembles a boy wearing his father’s suit. Cares does her blustering best to seem intimidated by Atkins’ threats, to little dramatic avail.

But no player is more troublesome than Genevieve Thompson, fatally cast as Nora’s confidante Kristine. Thompson recites almost all of her lines with forced exasperation. It sounds as if she’s giving a first table-reading, discovering her lines’ beats a moment or two after she’s said them. The interactions between her and Cares rarely seem to take place on the same page.

A few minor, distracting details go unnoticed by the production team, like Nora’s Act I synthetic-fabric dress. Some lines are muffled under the snowsuit-like material (“Let’s not swish swish talk business. It’s so boring! swish.”)

Scenes between Nora and Torvald are this “Doll’s House’s” saving grace. Dunn and Cares effectively capture Ibsen’s intentionally blurred familial relationship between husband and wife. To Torvald, Nora is his spouse, but treats her as his child. He wags his finger in parental disapproval when he catches her sneaking some sweeties, only to later leer at her as she dances a sexually-charged Tarantella. When Nora kneels beside Torvald, it’s anyone’s guess whether she’s about to ask for candy or fellate him.

The duo preserves just enough integrity for a passable production. But even under new clothes, this is amateur-ish Ibsen, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Featuring: Josh Atkins, Kate Cares, Stephen Dunn, Barbara Roeder Harris, Amanda Roeder, Mark Shallow, and Genevieve Thompson

Production Team: Katherine Arfken (Scenic Design), Tom Aufmann (Technical Director), Sarah Gilmore (Assistant Stage Manager), Sarah Luse (Production Manager), Rachel M. Sypniewski (Costume Designer and Managing Director), Mac Vaughey (Lighting Designer), Chas Vbra (Sound Designer) and Cade Wenthe (Stage Manager).

REVIEW: Skiing is Believing (Annoyance Theatre)

  
  

Small scale, big laughs, great fun

  
  

"Skiing is Believing" at the Annoyance Theatre in Uptown

  
Annoyance Theatre presents
   
Skiing Is Believing: A Speedy, Deadly Musical
  
Written by Boaz Reisman & Hans Holsen
Directed by
Dunbar Dicks
Musical Directed by
Boaz Reisman
at
Annoyance Theatre & Bar, 4830 N. Broadway (map)
through March 12  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Small-scale, low-budget original musicals are shockingly easy to find in Chicago, but good ones are more of a rarity. Often time, lofty ambitions and expectations beyond the theaters’ modest means lead to the undoing of these production, but Annoyance Theatre understands and embraces its limitations to create production that are both economical and gut-busting. Using only a piano, a handful of actors, and minimal set dressing and costumes, Skiing Is Believing is another success for the Uptown theater, a hilarious musical that will appeal to both skiers and non-believers.

"Skiing is Believing" at the Annoyance Theatre in UptownBrett (Scott Nelson) and Gary Wheatley (Kellen Alexander) are a superstar skating duo who return to their hometown of Ski-town to celebrate Brett’s upcoming nuptials. After a few shots of Jager with their best “brahs”, Brett and Gary takes to the slopes for a late night ski, until an avalanche buries Gary under a sheet of snow. (Literally a white sheet with holes cut into it; cheap, yet incredibly effective.) The avalanche also takes the life of a baby learning to ski, setting off a stream of dead baby jokes that start off funny with the song “A Baby Has Died,” but eventually become rather tedious. Luckily, these jokes are the only ones that fail to connect, and the baby skiing death leads to some great comic plot developments.

His guilt over the death of his brother and various babies throws Brett into a depression that lasts six months, pushing him apart from his fiancée (Mary Cait Walthall), who channels her frustration in the explosive bridge of her ballad “The Light In Your Eyes,” doing her best Jennifer Holliday impression. Eventually Brett is convinced to reenter the world, beginning with a Gnarleyfest, a wild, raunchy party that ends up taking the life of yet another person close to Brett, his friend Devin (Neil Dandade). The dead bodies piling up pushes Brett out of Ski-town, down south to Panama, where he meets a sassy local named Manuela (Chelsea Devantez) and dedicates himself to building a second Panama Canal in his brother’s memory.

The plot to Skiing Is Believing is completely nonsensical, but the actors are unflinching in their dedication to the material. Productions at The Annoyance are built with the help of the actors, and this cast of improvisers is adept at creating the types of wacky characters that would inhabit a musical as ridiculous as this one. The Panama setting in the second act is basically used to give the actors an excuse to use exaggerated Latin accents, but they are so funny that the laziness in the plot is excusable. The music is infectiously catchy (“Seeing me skiing is seeing me being happy!”), fantastically sung, and the characters are exaggerated but fully realized, making Skiing Is Believing one of the strongest small-scale musicals I’ve seen in quite a whole. If you’re brave enough to brave the treacherous slopes of Ski-town, it will make a believer out of you, too.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

"Skiing is Believing" at the Annoyance Theatre in Uptown

Extra Credit:


Skiing is Believing - show poster                 Artists

 

Featuring: Scott Nelson, Kellen Alexander, Steve Hnilicka, Neal Dandade, Chelsea Devantez, Mary Cait Walthall

Directed by Dunbar Dicks
Written by Hans Holsen and Boaz Reisman
Musical Direction by Boaz Reisman