Review: Heddatron (Sideshow Theatre)

  
  

A mechanical masterpiece in the Steppenwolf garage

  
 

Nina O'Keefe in Heddatron - Sideshow Theatre

  
Sideshow Theatre presents
  
Heddatron
  
Written by Elizabeth Meriweather
Directed by Jonathan L. Green
at Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Steppenwolf’s 2nd-annual Garage Rep Series offers three burgeoning storefront theaters the opportunity to mount a production in one of the city’s prime locations, and Sideshow Theatre’s stunning Heddatron establishes the company as an important, unique voice in the Chicago stage scene. A technical marvel, the show features ten fully functioning robots working in conjunction with an ensemble of nine actors, and the results are both hilarious and startlingly profound. Elizabeth Meriweather’s script initially follows three storylines: depressed, pregnant Michigan housewife Jane Gordon (Nina O’Keefe) reads Hedda Gabler on her couch, her husband Rick (Matt Fletcher) and daughter Nugget (Catherine Stegemann) search for her after she A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre.mysteriously disappears, and Hedda Gabler playwright Henrik Ibsen (Robert Koon) creates his tragic masterpiece.

The three stories weave together beautifully with great comedic transitions by the 10-year old Stegemann, and when they converge, the production achieves a moment of transcendence that reminded me of visiting Disneyland for the first time as a child. All the elements – sound, lights, acting, robots – are perfectly calibrated for maximum wonderment, and the production shifts from clever social critique to technological hyper-parody. Director Jonathan L. Green and his team of designer have crafted an outstanding multi-sensory experience, as Christopher M. LaPorte’s sound design builds tension to the reveal of the full grandeur of Lili Stoessel’s set and Jordan Kardasz’s lighting: the Robot Forest. This is where Jane Gordon will be forced to read Hedda Gabler with her robotic co-stars as the play’s creator watches on, stunned at the results.

Meriweather’s plot isn’t logical, but Green and his ensemble of actors have found the reality underneath these characters’ extraordinary circumstances to make the play rise above its face comedic value. The play begins with O’Keefe having already been on stage, in that same couch, for about fifteen minutes as the audience takes their seats. I don’t know if that’s in the script or not, but it really helps hammer the character’s crippling ennui. She doesn’t speak for the first twenty minutes of the play, and has to get on stage before the audience is even full? No wonder she’s bored. When Jane finally speaks, they are not her words, but Hedda Gabler’s, as she reads from the book that mysteriously fell into her room.

The three storylines all feature relatively ordinary main characters surrounded by spectacular supporting players. The soft-spoken, contemplative Ibsen has to put up with a harpy of a wife (Jennifer Matthews), a sex-kitten maid (Jennifer Shine), and a deranged nymphomaniac August Strindberg (Brian Grey). Rick and his daughter Nugget are teamed up with an insane small arms dealer named Cubby (Andy Luther) and an acne-ridden Big Bang Theory-styled film student (Nate Wheldon). And Jane has all those awesome, awesome robots. I could put few more awesomes in there, because these robots are not only technologically breathtaking, but have amazing comedic timing and design. My favorite robo-moment is when Auntjuliebot (I love that I get to type that!) is asked to sit down. Hilarity ensues, made all the better by the machine’s completely emotionless line delivery.

     
Nina O'Keefe - Sideshow Theatre - Heddatron A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre.
A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre. Hedatron - robot in the snow

While the robots serve a largely comedic function in the play, they also represent the mechanical, repetitive nature of domestic life. When Jane is kidnapped, she is in a place that is completely new and exciting, where she has no responsibilities, no lists of things to do, and she is finally able to release her emotions through her character. There’s nothing to suggest in the script that Jane is familiar with Hedda Gabler, or even if she goes to the theater, and O’Keefe’s reading of Hedda has a great uncertainty to it. As she is pressured to continue, Hedda takes over Jane, and O’Keefe is able to actually get into Ibsen’s character, capturing Hedda’s emotional instability with a vigor that made me eager to see what O’Keefe would really do in the role.

Hedda, Jane, and Ibsen are all living human beings in a world of robots, characters programmed to achieve maximum irritability, ecstasy, or even cuteness. Hedda and Jane don’t want to play a part anymore, and while Hedda ultimately gets her escape, Jane is forced back on the track, another pill-popping cog in the suburban machine. The play ends with a cameo from a Hollywood actress known for her stirring portrayals of distressed middle-aged women, a tear-filled tribute that gets big laughs, but also speaks to the play’s deeper themes. The ability to find emotional truth in the midst of absurdity is the sign of great comedy, and Heddatron is gifted with a cast and team that know just where to look.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

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Review: Working (Broadway in Chicago)

  
  

Now extended through June 5th!

        

Talented Chicago cast gets the job done!

  
  

Michael Mahler, E. Faye Butler, Gabriel Ruiz, Emjoy Gavino, Gene Weygandt, Barbara Robertson in Broadway in Chicago's 'Working'

  
Broadway in Chicago presents
  
Working
   
From the book by Studs Terkel
Adapted by
Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso
Directed by
Gordon Greenburg
at
Broadway Playhouse, 175 E. Chestnut (map)
through June 5  |   tickets: $67-$77   |   more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

‘Everybody should have something to point to!’ At the end of a career, job, or just day, there is satisfaction in pointing to something well-constructed… building, memo, burger… to say ‘I did that!‘ Steel beam to corner office to cubicle, one building houses millions of work tales. Broadway in Chicago presents Working a musical. In 1974, Pulitzer Prize- winning author Studs Terkel published a collection of interviews in his Michael Mahler - Chicago 'Working'book entitled “Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do.” In 1977, Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso adapted the book into a musical about the working class. In the current production, both skilled director Gordon Greenburg, and additional songs, have been added to the resume. ‘Working 2.0 brings timeless employees’ woes into a new age. Working is the ordinary dreams of ordinary people sung by an extraordinary Chicago cast!

The show is cued with a behind-the-curtain glimpse at staged theatre. An unseen person calls out directions in a countdown to the start. A bi-level backdrop showcases four dressing rooms where actors-playing-actors-playing-workers are busy prepping. The intriguing set by Beowulf Boritt has a strong industrial framework influence. The beams work double-time to establish a construction feel as an ironworker kicks-off the interview series. Later, the metal structure is the screen for visual projections by Aaron Rhyne. Designer Rhyne adds magnificent depth to the stories with authentic location and people imagery. Studs Terkel haunts the stage from beginning to end. In the opening scene, his voice is heard as several reel to reel recorders play his historic interviews tapes. At the finale, projections of the working people series ends with his facial profile. In between the Studs, a hard-working ensemble of six dress and undress…sometimes right on stage… to tell 26 different stories in 100 minutes.

The marathon of memories is well-paced, with each character’s story transitioning into another’s. Sometimes, it’s natural… construction guy to executive to assistant. Sometimes, it’s just a little forced… retired to fireman or factory worker to mason or trucker to call center tech. Regardless, the stitching together adds to a rhythmic flow for the always-dynamic and ever-changing cast. There are lots of moments to point to with this talented 6 doing 26 parts, but here are some favorites: E. Faye Butler transforms effortlessly from humble housewife to vivacious hooker to amusing cleaning lady. Totally diva-licious, Butler belts out songs like an entire gospel choir squeezed into one uniform. Gabriel Ruiz - Chicago 'Working'Emjoy Gavino goes from sassy flight attendant to poignant millworker with an unforgettable solo. Despite a crackling microphone, Barbara Robertson is delightful and slightly disturbing as an old-school teacher. Then, as an amicable and career content waitress, Robertson serves up an impressive singing number complete with a side of splits. Gabriel Ruiz delivers burgers with playful energy, then later sings sweetly as a caregiver doing a job nobody wants. Michael Mahler plays it ruggedly funny as seasoned trucker then naively hilarious as a newbie student. Gene Weygandt bookends the show as the cocky ironworker bragging about heights and confessing his shortcomings in a powerfully nostalgic ‘Fathers and Sons.’

WORKING: a musical employs a talented Chicago cast! No matter what your current job status, this hard-working cast will entertainingly sing to you a familiar tune. It’s realistic, relatable, regularity life put to music. I’m pointing at Working as an enjoyable after-work happy hour.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  
Barbara Robertson - Chicago 'Working' Gene Weygandt - Chicago 'Working' E. Faye Bulter - Chicago 'Working'
Gabriel Ruiz - Chicago 'Working' Emjoy Gavino - Chicago 'Working' Michael Mahler - Chicago 'Working'

Working continues through June 5th, with performances Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursday, Sundays at 7:30pm, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm, and Wednesdays, Saturdays, Sundays at 2pm.  The Broadway Playhouse is located on 175 E. Chestnut in downtown Chicago (behind Watertower Place). Ticket prices are $67 to $77, and can be purchased online HERE. Running Time: 100 minutes with no intermission.

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