Review: The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen (Strange Tree Group)

     
     

It’s bawdy! It’s wacky! It’s macabre! It’s true!

   
  

Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Full Cast Shot featuring Stuart Ritter, Matt Holzfeind, & Scott

  
Strange Tree Group presents
   
The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen
  
Written by Emily Schwartz
Directed by
Jimmy McDermott
at
Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I confess! I secretly watch some of the cable ‘reality’ shows about men and women who snap and take out a bumbling hit on their hapless wealthy spouses. Who doesn’t love a good juicy scandal that involves sex, drugs, and charming pre-Vaudeville songs? The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen is a fun romp through the Daguerreotyped and yellowed pages of a Gilded Age tabloid scandal.

Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Matt Holzfeind, Stuart Ritter, & Scott Cupper as Doctor CrippenThe Strange Tree Group has presented a new take on the true case of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen. In 1910, the milquetoast Dr. Crippen allegedly knocked his trampy spouse off and buried her torso in the basement and then took to the high seas with his girlfriend.

This is a sardonic tale that is made funnier of course by the classic ingredients of comedy: tragedy plus time = comedy. Three actors as the Public, Private, and Fantasy personas divide the character created around H.H. Crippen. Stuart Ritter, Scott Cupper, and Matt Holzfeind play them respectively. It is a great device because each persona is a goldmine of material and might be overwhelming if played by one actor. The three actors bounce off of each other with breakneck dialogue and double takes. They regularly break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. “What about the corpse?” That is a line repeated to great effect for laughs. After all, there is a dismembered body in a claw foot tub while the three personas argue over what to do.

Speaking of great affect, I loved Kate Nawrocki as the deliciously trampy, spoiled, and doomed Cora Crippen. She has the wonderful look of a Gibson girl gone bad.

Playing the opposite and supposedly good girl is Delia Baseman as Ethel LeNeve. Ms. Baseman plays the part of innocent waif mixed with Olive Oyl. It’s fun to see her go from office drone to obviously a little freaky for milquetoast and a dead tramp’s mink coat.

The entire cast is pitch perfect rolling in and out of scenes and talking to the audience in character. The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen is a Thomas Nast caricature come to life. The songs are sung in the old Vaudeville style touching on the pre-burlesque edginess. Ms. Nawrocki does the harlot sings like Victorian waif to perfection. She is first seen in the claw foot tub surrounded by shiny balloon bubbles. The balloons are popped in burlesque manner when Cora blasts into her true colors and corset. Cora Crippen meets her death in that same tub in true tragicomic fashion. The lurid red satin ‘entrails’ and beating heart precede le piece de resistance- a lock of Cora’s hair. It’s funny on two fronts: it’s what put the noose around the real H.H. Crippen’s neck and it’s a hair weave. See my previous confession about trashy reality television. Cat fights and hair weaves abound when past meets present in this quirky and fun production.

     
Matt Holzfeind and Kate Nawrocki as Cora and Hawley Crippen Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Delia Baseman as Ethel Le Neve and Stuart Ritter as Doctor Crippen.  Photo credit: Tyler Core
Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - - Stuart Ritter, Matt Holzfeind, Scott Cupper, & Delia Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group 012

I got the feeling of a sepia toned “Laugh In” set with one liners delivered with perfect timing. Cory Aiello pops in and out as Crippen’s son Otto. He doesn’t have a lot of dialogue but is spot on through facial expression and body language. The tittering ladies of the social set are quite fun and nicely cast. Carol Enoch, Jenifer Henry, and Jennifer Marschand are dressed in lurid red as they query the audience about telegrams. They enter and exit in staccato steps that give the effect of an early film reel.

All of the actors are made up in white face and bright red cheeks in a nod to the macabre theme of death and romance. Ms. Baseman also designed the costumes for The Three Faces.  She makes excellent choices to recall an era gone by. The pre-show is fun and intriguing as well, with Baseman and Nawrocki singing songs from the Gilded Age. The character of Ethel clacks away at her typewriter relentlessly in rhythm as Cora lounges in the bath exuding luxuriance and a louche attitude. I wish, however, that they had projected a bit better. Some of the lyrics to “A Bicycle Built for Two” got lost or dropped. I’m a music geek from back in the day but it would have served the plotline to hear the innocence of the words in contrast to the deviant behavior.

Strange Tree Productions states that they are committed to producing pieces that celebrate the strange and the magical…and the surprisingly usual nature of unusual behavior. They have succeeded with The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen. From this day forth, I will always question a handlebar moustache and check the labels on my homeopathic medicines!

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Bob Kruse, Kate Nawrocki, & Cory Aiello

The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen plays through April 24th as part of Steppenwolf’s 2nd Annual Garage Repertory. These are plays from edgy and talented playwrights and theatre companies on the cutting edge of the craft. They are housed at Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted. More info at www.strangetree.org

All photos by Tyler Core.

     
     

Review: Some Enchanted Evening (Theo Ubique Theatre)

  
  

Update: Now extended through July 3rd!

More American than apple pie!

  
  

Austin Cook, Evan Tyrone Martin, Dana Tretta - Theo-Ubique Cabaret Theatre - Some Enchanted Evening

  
Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre presents
    
Some Enchanted Evening:
  The Songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein

          

Directed by Fred Anzevino
Music Directed by Austin Cook
at No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $25-$30 (dinner: $20)  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The purest patriotism possible in this troubled land is just to love the subject of this show. The beautiful Broadway created by Rodgers and Hammerstein is broad indeed, and a way to everything that’s (still) good about America. We can enjoy the optimism of Oklahoma, dangerous ambition of Carousel, courage and tolerance of South Pacific, family values of State Fair, curiosity and growth of The King and I, assimilation of Flower Drum Song, and, well, the love of singing in The Sound of Music.  It’s there in melodies (Rodgers) you could get drunk on and lyrics (Hammerstein) that feel good because they’re just true.

Danni Smith and Austin Cook - Theo-Ubique Cabaret Theatre - Some Enchanted Evening, Songs of Rogers and HammersteinFramed as a rehearsal that turns into a performance, Fred Anzevino’s generous, two-hour tribute to R&H’s glorious Americana showcases five splendid singers flawlessly directed by musical director and pianist Austin Cook. The uncredited compilation offers clever to sumptuous arrangements in a program that lets the songs talk to each other almost as much as they resonate with an equally impassioned audience. We grew up with these songs until they’re now part of our emotional DNA.

At the same time, you’ve never imagined “Maria” as a possible love song about a relationship, not a complaint by nuns, but it works well here. (Less so is the unnecessarily jazzed-up backdrop to “Something Wonderful.”) A few discoveries offer less-known confirmation of the partners’ mastery, like the winsome “A Fellow Needs a Girl” and the sardonic lament “The Gentleman Is a Dope” (Rodgers’ later sequel to “The Lady Is a Tramp”?).

So many favorites are included that it’s easier to mention the ones that aren’t (the power anthems “Climb Every Mountain” and “You’ll Never Walk Along” and my favorite ballad, “What’s the Use of Won’drin’?”). What made the cut, however, is perfection enough, especially as sung by a soaring soprano and euphoric belter like Sarah Schoch, who gives “A Wonderful Guy” a fitting sweep and scope. Dana Tretta is a wicked comedienne in “I Can’t Say No” and a wistful lover in “I Have Dreamed.” Danni Smith brings star quality to the fragile “Love, Look Away” and raw nostalgia and tensile heartbreak to “Hello, Young Lovers.”

     
Danni Smith, Evan Tyrone Martin, Dana Tretta - Theo-Ubique Cabaret Theatre Austin Cook, Evan Tyrone Martin, Dana Tretta, Jeremy Trager - Theo-Ubique Theatre
Some Enchated Evening ensemble - Theo-Ubique Cabaret 3 Evan Tyrone Martin, Dana Tretta, Austin Cook, Jeremy Trager Danni Smith and Sara Schoch in 'Some Enchated Evening' - Theo-Ubique Cabaret

Jeremy Trager’s baritone serves him splendidly throughout, never more so than in his driven version of Billy Bigelow’s all-confessing “Soliloquy.” Finally, Evan Tyrone Martin brings a heavenly tenor to “Edelweiss,” a folk song so pure it fits every possible singer, while his tender and haunting take on the little-known “Everybody’s Got a Home But Me” shows how R&H could summon up the blues in spirit if not in note.

Fine as they are, collectively this terrific ensemble turn “Shall We Dance,” “A Grand Night,” “Grant Avenue,” and the seductive title song into harmonious musical gems of a thousand carats each.

Well, the revue’s title says it all. My one complaint is that the whole show should have been a sing-along. But I’ll leave that to “The Messiah.”

  
     
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Austin Cook, Dana Tretta, Jeremy Trager, Danni Smith, Sara Schoch and Evan Tyrone Martin in 'Some Enchanted Evening' - Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

All photos by G. Thomas Ward Photography

     
     

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