Review: Wonders Never Cease (Provision Theater)

  
  

Broad brush strokes make paradoxical play

  
  

Wonders Never Cease - Provision Theater - poster

  
Provision Theater presents
   
Wonders Never Cease
  
Adapted and Directed by Tim Gregory
Based on the book by Tim Downs
at Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Rd. (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $25-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Provision TheaterCompany‘s world premier production of Wonders Never Cease has all the trappings of a wacky children’s comedy. Think “Miracle on 34th Street” meets “3 Ninjas”. Its overly simplistic portrayal of religion, faith, people, relationships, right and wrong makes it easy to follow but hard to stomach. Jokes arise out of tired premises, while characters are pulled from the archetype bargain bin. And the ending is so saccharine sweet, it will make your stomach turn.

Caroline Heffernan as Leah - Provision TheaterProvision is known for its religious-themed plays. Its mission is to produce works of "hope, reconciliation and redemption." Wonders Never Cease is no exception. It attempts to dramatically answer the question, "Do angels really exist?" Unfortunately, the sophomoric manner in which it illustrates this theme is so simplistic it’s insulting. It doesn’t matter if you’re a believer or not. The surface-level treatment this weighty topic is given is sadly laughable. By painting with such broad brush strokes, playwright Tim Gregory (who adapted and directed the play and serves as the company’s artistic director) inadvertently creates a number of paradoxes that muddle the meaning and erode the play’s potential.

Wonders Never Cease centers on Leah (the very talented and young Caroline Heffernan), a little girl who claims to have seen an angel on the side of the road. Those close to her are skeptical of her visions, including her mother (Katherine Banks), her mother’s boyfriend (Ryan Kitley) and her teacher (Matt Klingler). Leah’s bizarre visions raise eyebrows, and soon the school is recommending a complete evaluation.

Meanwhile, the boyfriend, Kemp, works as a nurse who isn’t afraid to overstep his authority. When he is assigned to care for a comatose female celebrity (Holly Bittinger), he devises a moneymaking opportunity. This is good news for him, considering he owes big bucks to an East Coast loan shark (Sean Bolger). Kemp, the loan shark, the celebrity’s agent (JoBe Cerny) and a book publisher (Michael Wollner) conspire to fool the celebrity by implanting her with a false religious vision. The plan is that when she eventually comes to, she’ll confuse the ruse for reality and write a best-selling novel. I don’t want to spoil it, but, suffice to say, things go awry.

Despite its weaknesses, the play has several strong points. First, the acting is top tier. Little Heffernan is a darling young actress. It’s hard to keep your eyes off of her. The performers are eloquent and dynamic. Unfortunately the characters they’ve been assigned to are paper-thin. In fact, half are offensive cultural stereotypes. You have an overweight mammy, a wise old black man, an Italian mobster and a Jewish talent agent who occasionally drops some Yiddish and, at one point, refers to himself as a parasite.

A scene from "Wonders Never Cease" at Provision Theater in Chicago.

The play delivers one comedic triumph—the spot on Oprah impression. The opening parody commercial is a funny bit, too. It’s for a book titled Lattes with God and seeks to lampoon all those feel-good, spirituality books on the market. But unfortunately, the play lacks the awareness to understand the slippery slope it establishes. If Lattes with God is absurd, what about the premise of this play? For that matter, what about the books of the Bible, which were notated by men who were also hearing the word of God? Does the presence of a latte make all the difference?

In addition, the play has a very myopic view of spirituality. The cartoonishly villainous bad guys try to create a false dogma, one that centers on the self. Their catchphrase is, "It’s all about you." I get it. This is the "me" generation, and blatant selfishness is wrong. But they confuse the notions of self-love and self-compassion with pride and greed. In the words of Ru Paul, "If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?"

On a technical level, Wonders Never Cease is a good play. The production level is high, and the acting is strong. But underneath the high-gloss finish is little more than marshmallow fluff. This is junk food for the brain. It’s accessible and immediately gratifying. But you’ll be hungry for some substance soon after.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Wonders Never Cease runs runs Saturday, April 30 through Sunday, June 5 at Provision Theater located at 1001 W. Roosevelt Rd. The performance schedule is Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. ($28) and Sundays at 3 p.m. ($25). Student and group discounts are available. For tickets call 866.811.4111 or visit www.provisiontheater.org.

  
  

Continue reading

Review: Oprah! A Comedy! Live Your Best Laugh (Annoyance Theatre)

  
  

Hilarity, history and the ‘Big O’

  
  

Oprah! A Comedy! Live Your Best Life, co-created by Anne Marie Saviano and Marc Warzecha for Chicago's Annoyance Theatre and Bar.

  
The Annoyance Theatre presents
 
Oprah! A Comedy! Live Your Best Laugh
  
Co-created and directed by Anne Marie Saviano
Co-created and written by Marc Warzecha
at The Annoyance Theatre and Bar, 4830 N. Broadway (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

Ah Chicago. It’s a hardscrabble kind of place and once the people take you into their hearts it seems that there is instant canonization. For better or worse we Chicagoans have our saints. In Oprah! A Comedy! Live Your Best Laugh, conceived by two Second City alums, The Annoyance Theatre hits the mark with hilarious perfection.

Michelle Renee Thompson does a spot on Oprah as Lady Bountiful and full of herself. Ms. Thompson’s Oprah is led on an ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ type of replay of her years in Chicago. This is a purely Chicago production with parodies of present day politicos and a couple of ghosts from the past played to perfection.

The supporting cast of "Oprah" brings to life all of the lore that has been dispensed about Ms. Winfrey. No one is allowed to look Ms. Winfrey in the eye and if you reach the exalted position of calling her Ms. Oprah Winfrey rather than her surname-well it’s a Benny Hinn-style miracle. The evangelist dig was slipped in so smoothly that perhaps only insomniacs and media nerds such as myself caught it.

Oprah gives a ‘miracle’ of her advice and inspiration to Janet who she calls Janice, lays hands on her forehead, and Janet swoons falling backwards. Liz Bell is hilarious as the newly-inspired Janet and as other characters Suze Orman, Ellen Degeneres , and Mother Theresa.

Nate Sherman plays Oprah’s eternal sideman Steadman. Thompson’s Oprah doesn’t know his last name or what he does for a living. Mr. Sherman also brings life to Mahatma Gandhi and Jesse Jackson Sr. The spoof of Jesus, Gandhi, and Mother Theresa on Oprah’s favorite things show brings down the house. Gandhi gets a Volkswagen Beetle and exclaims that he deserves it because "I got shot and it was bullshit!" while Jesus and Mother Theresa cling to one another in shock and awe. Mr. Sherman’s Jesse also offers father another illegitimate baby with Oprah if she will stay in Chicago.

Justin Vestal plays Richard M. Daley as the political scion always trying to live up to his father’s legacy. Vestal is a mirror or Daley-isms at a press conference even throwing in the legendary ‘cuckoo!’ He begs Oprah to stay and shore up his legacy since he lost the Olympics. Then the ghost of Richard J. Daley enters and he is given the Royko-inspired name "Boss". He slaps Richard M. around and then sets about showing Oprah that Ellen Degeneres would be the queen of talk while Oprah is relegated to local commercials.

If you have lived in Chicago for at least five years, you will recognize the Eagle Man laying the insurance rate egg, Peter Francis Geraci’s painful deadpan delivery, and the Empire Carpet commercials. (It should be noted that Elmer Lynn Hauldren just passed away and was known as the Empire Man for over thirty years.) A woman behind me cringed and said "too soon". I say just right. Hauldren was well aware of his cult status and had been spoofed on the Chicago stage before by playwrights and comedians. The show was running before he died and his appearance with a halo was more of a tribute in my eyes. Besides, Hauldren had appeared in the carpet commercials as a cartoon for the past few years with only his voice. R.I.P. 588-2300 Empi-i-i-re Today! Wolfgang Stein played him with a wonderful doddering effect.

Oprah! opens up a few sensitive tabloid subjects with comic flourish. Brittany Davis plays best friend Gayle King with schoolgirl lesbian crush undertones. Oprah and Gayle pantomime patty-cake (ala “The Color Purple”) whenever they part. Stein reappears as couch jumping freak Tom Cruise who frantically humps Oprah’s leg. And there’s is a freaky scene with her and Dr. Phil that would spin the National Enquirer on its’ head.

In all, this is inspired satire and it is brilliantly funny. I have not laughed so hard in a while and hope that Oprah! A Comedy! Live Your Best Laugh could play continuously for a while like other Chicago classics. Over 70 Chicago icons make the cut in this fast paced and intelligently funny show. Yes, some of the jokes are base and low, but to quote Richard "Boss" Daley, "This is Chicago and if you don’t like it, kiss under the mistletoe on my suit tail".

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  
  Oprah! A Comedy! Live Your Best Life, co-created by Anne Marie Saviano and Marc Warzecha for Chicago's Annoyance Theatre and Bar.   Oprah! A Comedy! Live Your Best Life, co-created by Anne Marie Saviano and Marc Warzecha for Chicago's Annoyance Theatre and Bar.  

Oprah A Comedy! Live Your Best Laugh runs through May15th at The Annoyance Theater. Go to www.annoyanceproductions.com for more information on tickets and show times. Lighten up and laugh!

              

Crazy Oprah