REVIEW: Bordello (Chicago Dramatists)

  
  

Superbly cast and acted, ‘Bordello’ exposes a claustrophobic world

  
 

Dana Black, Melissa Canciller, Joanne Dubach, Ariana Dziedzic, Marguerite Hammersley, Katherine Keberlein, Kyra Morris - in 'Bordello' at Chicago Dramatists.

   
Chicago Dramatists presents
  
Bordello
  
Written by Aline Lathrop
Directed by
Meghan Beals McCarthy
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
thru March 6  |  tickets: $32  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

If prostitution is performance, then Aline Lathrop’s world premiere play, Bordello, at Chicago Dramatists gives audiences a backstage pass to the reality of sex workers at a legal Nevada brothel. Director Meghan Beals McCarthy drives Lathrop’s intricate, tightly woven script forward with beautifully humanized performances from a taut all-woman ensemble. The show opens with the women lined up to present their hooker aliases during the bordello’s yearly “customer appreciation night.” But what happens in the front of the house stands in sharp contrast to the stark reality these women reveal in the break room, where they unglamorously dress down in t-shirts, sports bras, exercise pants and bathrobes.

A scene from 'Bordello' by Aline Lathrop, playing at Chicago Dramatists.Far from being a source of titillation, Bordello is a study in claustrophobia. Each character’s individual circumstances restrict her as surely as the bordello’s bizarrely regulated sex work environment. Indeed, the women call their workplace “Pussy Penitentiary.” No phone calls allowed from Thursday through Saturday. No privacy in their rooms since locks on the doors are forbidden. Every room is bugged. Of what they earn, 50% goes to the house; 20% goes to transportation if the johns take a cab all the way from Vegas. Even though they live at the bordello and pay its overhead, meals are $7. Further restricting their liberty is the fact that so many work for a pimp outside the brothel. Indeed, “Who’s your pimp?” becomes the first question asked of a new inmate. Finally, there’s the bell that summons the women to the line-up like a cattle call.

Like all good prison dramas, once it’s been established how thoroughly the characters are controlled, how they attempt to control and upstage each other becomes the central dynamic. Sisterhood isn’t terribly powerful in Lathrop’s drama—an extremely depressing thought, considering all the other conditions the women endure. But Lathrop’s dialogue is tough, fast-paced, and humorous as well as cutting. As much as the characters jealously defend their place in the bordello’s hierarchy—particularly with regard to Andy, the owner–they also exhibit tremendous vulnerability and capacity for nurturing in the middle of a dog-eat-dog environment.

It would be difficult to find more well cast production. Joanne Dubach plays Kitten for all the heartbreak the role has in store, turned out by her pimp Jimmy at 11, now struggling to find her way at the bordello at 18. Katherine Keberlin plays Jewell, the bordello’s porn star celebrity, with tough and glorious panache. Dana Black’s rendering of Mandy seals her problem child attitude with spontaneous vulnerability. Her relationship with the sharp and sassy Lotus (Melissa Canciller) is an inspired choice. Ariana Dziedzic strikes the right note of desperate and exploited co-dependency as Michelle. Kyra Morris’ Godiva, an Iraq War veteran, is rendered with fierce assurance and nuanced cracks in her otherwise strong facade. Honey (Marguerite Hammersley) warmly and sensually rounds out the cast as the older working girl of the bunch.

If there is any criticism to be made, it’s the way the playwright structures a mystery she’s planted within the plotline. At one point, razor blades are discovered in one prostitute’s bar of soap and the break room becomes tense over who among the women planted them there. But it’s a mystery that becomes lost in the interplay of the women’s lives. By the time the real culprit is revealed in the second act, the discovery lacks impact and the play’s ending cuts short of any time to consider its ramifications for the characters involved. A little editing to build foreshadowing and suspense would make for a more united, cohesive and compelling drama.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Bordello at Chicago Dramatists - legs

 

Aritists:

CAST: Dana Black, Melissa Canciller, Joanne Dubach, Ariana Dziedzic, Chicago Dramatists Associate Artist Marguerite Hammersley, Katherine Keberlein, Kyra Morris

PRODUCTION: Set Design by Marianna Csaszar, Sound Design by Victoria DeIorio, Costume Design by Christine Pascual, Lighting Design by Jeff Pines, and Props Design by Jenniffer J. Thusing.

  
  

REVIEW: Laika: Dog In Space (The Neo-Futurists)

  
  

Too much quirk, not enough substance

  
  

 Rob Neill, Jill Beckman, Eevin Hartsough in Neo-Futurists' Laika: Dog In Space.  Photo by Lauren Sharpe

  
The Neo-Futurists present
   
Laika: Dog in Space
  
Written by Rob Neill, Eevin Hartsough and Jill Beckman
Directed by
Phil Ridarelli
Music by
Carl Riehl
at
The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland (map)
thru March 12  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The Neo-Futurists are renowned for their experimental theater works, but the transfer of their New York branch’s Laika: Dog In Space tries too hard to be quirky and off-kilter, resulting in a scattershot production that is hard to connect with. Building on the true story of Laika, the first mammal sent into space, and incorporating elements of children’s story The Little Prince and cult classic television series “The Prisoner”, Laika: Dog In Space is intended to be a meditation on the nature of isolation, but the message gets lost in the execution. And while Neo-Futurist shows are often informal, they are usually not messy, which makes the unpolished presentation of Laika even more disappointing.

Jill Beckman, Eevin Hartsough, Rob Neill in scene from 'Laika: Dog in Space' at Neo-Futurists in Andersonville. Photo by Lauren Sharpe.For those unfamiliar, Laika was a stray dog that Russian scientists sent into space in Sputnik 2, making it the first mammal in orbit, but killing Laika in the process. Writer/performers Rob Neill, Eevin Hartsough, and Jill Beckman imagine that Laika lives on in “The Village” (pronounced “vill-AHj”) an isolated space rock where she is visited by a small fairy that tells stories to pass the time. While the fantastic elements of The Little Prince are apparent, the influence of “The Prisoner” is harder to grasp, beyond giving Laika’s rock the same name as the location of Patrick McGoohan’s Number 6 and putting the performers in white lab coats with numbers 1, 2, and 6 on them. A voice instructs the performers on what steps to take next, whether that is “Isolation Investigation,” “Prisoner Trajectory,” or “Storytime,” but the separate elements struggle to come together in a coherent manner.

The Neo-Futurist’s Too Much Light Makes The Baby Go Blind (our review ★★★★), has given them a reputation for creating mini-plays that run the gamut from comic to serious to smashing a potato with a sledge hammer. Laika alters the format slightly by telling multiple stories that are connected through the common themes of space, isolation, and imagination, ranging from personal anecdotes from the actors, historical accounts of Laika’s origins, and rock and roll musical interludes. The musical scenes suffer from the volume of the band, which drowns out whatever the actors are singing whenever all four members are playing. Either the actors need to be amplified more, or the band needs to play quieter, a difficult task in the Neo-Futurists’ small space.

A heavier emphasis on technical aspects than the usual Neo-Futurists production means more opportunities for things to go wrong, and despite the casual atmosphere of the show, it’s difficult to overlook Laika’s technical issues. One TV screen displays a “Line In” box rather than the images of the other screens, the pulley rig for Laika’s Village set malfunctions at the end of the production, and an audience interaction portion involving cassette players and headphones is an ill-timed mess. By trying to fit too much, the individual parts suffer, yet despite Laika’s misgivings, when the actors get explicit about the intent of their production, the script finally clicks.

     
A scene from 'Laika: Dog in Space' at Neo-Futurists in Andersonville. Photo by Lauren Sharpe. A scene from 'Laika: Dog in Space' at Neo-Futurists in Andersonville. Photo by Lauren Sharpe.

Jill Beckman in scene from 'Laika: Dog in Space' at Neo-Futurists in Andersonville. Photo by Lauren Sharpe.

While I usually have issues with plays that don’t follow the “show, don’t tell” rule, Laika: Dog In Space needs those moments where the actors pause and explain just what is going on, otherwise the show makes no sense. The play’s themes of reality vs. imagination, fact vs. belief, and isolation vs. community become clear once the actors flat out say that those are the concepts they’re trying to get across, but I wish it were evident during the more abstract moments of the show. The production tries to create a sense of community within the room, whether it is through making borsch that the audience can all eat after the show or by pulling audience members on stage to drink Tang upside down, but these elements fail to enlighten the deeper message of the play. Despite being well-performed, the script needs a stronger focus and the technical aspects need to be cleaned up if Laika: Dog In Space hopes to truly take off.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Regular performances continue through March 12, playing Thurs/Fri/Sat at 8:00pm. Two Monday night performances: February 21 and 28 at 8:00 p.m.  Tickets are $15, $10 for students/seniors with ID, or pay-what-you-can on Thursdays. All performances take place at The Neo-Futurarium, 5153 N. Ashland.   Get your tickets now…

     
     

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REVIEW: Dead Pile (XIII Pocket Ensemble)

  
  

Vegan play is all potatoes, no meat

  
  

Cast from XIII Pocket's  'Dead Pile': (left to right) Allie Long, Andy Lutz,  Justin James Farley (center), Mark Minton and Chip Davis.  Photo credit: Michael Litchfield

   
XIII Pocket Ensemble presents
   
Dead Pile
  
Written by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by Megan Shuchman
at Theater Wit, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru Feb 27  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

There are a couple positive things about XIII Pocket’s Dead Pile. For one, the play features some impressive acting talent. Justin James Farley as the animal-rights investigator protagonist delivers his lines with a distinct genuineness, even when the script is laughably melodramatic. Likewise, Andy Lutz (making his Chicago debut) injects some much-needed levity into his role as the alcoholic, antagonistic farmhand.

The other compliment I’ll pay is that – for a play that centers around such hot-button issues as animal rights, food production and ethical veganism – it avoids the pitfall of being too preachy. We never get that worn diatribe about the systemic abuses that plague dairy farms and meat producers. After all, propaganda (even if it is propaganda that this theater critic agrees with) does not necessarily make for good storytelling. Unfortunately, even without the predictable soapboxing, Dead Pile is dead on arrival.

Scene from XIII Pocket's 'Dead Pile' - (top) Andy Lutz (bottom) Allie Long and Justin James Farley. Photo credit: Michael LitchfieldThe play is about an animal rights investigator named Jeremy who is sent out on assignment by his non-profit boss (Chip Davis) to infiltrate a dairy farm. Once on the farm, Jeremy encounters a colorful cast of trite, two-dimensional caricatures. We have Russell (Mark Minton), the farmer’s progressive son who wants to transform his daddy’s property into an organic farm. Then there’s R.J. (Lutz), the tough farmhand who’s aggressive with women, yells at football games and likes beer too much. And finally we have Nance (Allie Long), the superfluous love interest who has bigger dreams than to be bound to an Indiana farm.

As Jeremy conducts his investigation, he’s continually pressured by his non-profit supervisors to gather animal abuse evidence so they can make a bust. Meanwhile, he’s warming up to Nance and Russell, which could compromise matters. It also means he’s probably not a competent investigator, but I guess that’s beside the point.

Playwright Laura Jacqmin‘s inhumane treatment of the audience is worthy of a PETA investigation. She muddles the play with unnecessary details while simultaneously robbing us of what should be the most dramatic scenes. The fact that Jeremy is black is brought up too many times without enough justification for its presence. Are we supposed to be surprised that not all Indiana farmers are racist bigots? And why end the first act with a frantic voice over, when you could just stage what sounds like a really engaging scene? And what about the big reveal, that moment that the audience has been anticipating the entire play where Jeremy’s status is revealed? It is done so swiftly and with no impact that it’s pointless that he reveals it at all.

Another major flaw is the melodrama. The biggest offending scene is one in which Jeremy and Nance share what might be the most forced intimate moment I have ever seen staged. Seriously, this scene has everything, from a Lifetime-esque sob story about Jeremy’s invalid brother to Nance begging Jeremy to take her with him when he leaves because, after all, anywhere is better than here.

I reserve additional criticism for Megan Shuchman, whose direction comes across as thoughtless. What purpose does it serve to have Davey visible to the audience throughout the entire play? What is the deal with the set design? With all the thrown about windowpanes, wood scraps and bric-a-brac it resembles the eye of a tornado more than a farm. Why waste stage space with an office and a bedroom you barely use while your actors are forced to largely perform in an ambiguous setting?

So while I applaud Jacqmin for striving to craft a story that refuses to preach to the choir, I fault her for producing an amateur script where the audience is robbed of sympathetic characters and climaxes. Concentrate on writing a good play with a great story, compelling scenes and dynamic characters. Without that as your base, your audience will wonder, "Where’s the beef?"

     
     
Rating: ★½
   
   

Dead Pile continues thru February 27th, running Thursdays-Sundays, February 4-27, at 8pm.  Performances occur at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago. Tickets priced at  $20 general admission and $12 student/senior. To purchase tickets, call the Stage 773 box office at 773-327-5252.  More info at http://www.xiiipocket.com.

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REVIEW: Closer (AstonRep Theatre)

  
  

Endless scene changes stifle strong ensemble work

  
  

CloserPoster

  
AstonRep Theatre Company presents
   
Closer
  
Written by Patrick Marber
Directed by Rob Cramer
at
Heartland Studio Theatre, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through March 5  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Patrick Marber’s magnum opus Closer hits like a Classical tragedy with “Friends” era embellishment. Marber won a shelf-full of awards and recognition for the play, but has since gone on to craft such garbage as “The Tourist” screenplay. In 2004, he turned the play into a Julia Roberts/Jude Law vehicle and found raving mainstream audiences. Closer is now one of about five plays you’ll probably find on any given Borders’ drama section.

Despite the hype, the play packs a punch, drawing comparisons to Brits like Noel Coward and Harold Pinter. Unlike much of the schlock coming out of the late ‘90s/early aughts (Proof, anybody?), Marber writes harrowing thematic depth and dense, conflicted characters. The play does indeed feel like a period piece of the ‘90’s.

AstonRep Theatre Company’s mission is to bring theatre to non-theatre audiences, which perhaps explains choosing such a well-known piece for their second production. Snuggly fit in the BoHo space in Rogers Park, their production doesn’t seem to go anywhere conceptually. What saves the show from total destruction is Marber’s deft writing sensibilities and an incredibly talented cast.

Overall, the production feels like an acting class final. The talent on-stage contrasts starkly with the poor production values, creating a strange rift that never resolves.

The four-actor piece follows two men and two women over a few years. The characters meet, have sex, fall in love (or not), and inevitably break up and squash each others’ hearts, not always in that order. Dan (Ray Kasper), an obituary writer, meets Alice (newcomer Aja Wiltshire), an ex-stripper prone to falling in front of moving cars. As the months go on, Anna (Amy Kasper) and Larry (Robert Tobin) get thrown into the mix. Affairs spiral off in all sorts of directions, most end in emotional explosions. Then there is the making up, marriages, divorces, and long talks in strip clubs.

Ray Kasper, although too old for the part, works well against Wiltshire, easily the most charming member of the cast. Although he can’t nail Larry’s anger, Robert Tobin finds and plays up the humor. Amy Kasper makes bold choices from the beginning. The cast struggle with some of the weightier moments of the play, although they are always in sync with the dramatic arch of the piece.

Director Rob Cramer’s production is extremely hampered by amateurish stumbling blocks. The transitions are the most glaring issues, making a 90 minute script into well over 2 hours. There are twelve scenes in the play. Here, each transition is done in blackout, without any music, and without any creativity. The AstonRep gang forgets that this is all part of the show, too. Designer Lea Tobin’s set feels rushed and inadequate. We see all the wires, but we shouldn’t. I wish Cramer lessened everything and just focused on his cast. A simpler touch would make the show quicker, clearer, and more engaging.

I’ll be honest, considering the missteps, I thought this was going to be a groaner of a production. But the cast really pull the play together, forging the believably convoluted relationships that Marber requires. Even the scene where Dan and Larry interact in a sex chat room, for example, is hilariously crude yet Kasper and Tobin use it to reveal quite a lot about each character.

Marber’s writing dabbles a bit in romantic comedy, melodrama, and tragedy, but Closer defies any neat Hollywood genre placement. Unlike many writers of our time, he allows the story to drive itself in any direction it needs. The folks behind AstonRep understand this, but they aren’t able to articulate it.

  
   
Rating: ★★
  
  

Artists

 

CastAmy Kasper, Ray Kasper, Robert Tobin, and Aja Wiltshire.

Production: Rob Cramer (Director), Jeremiah Barr (Assistant Director), Samantha Barr (Lighting Design, Stage Manager) and Lea Tobin (Scenic Design, Graphic Designer).