Review: Hickorydickory (Chicago Dramatists)

  
  

Despite inconsistencies, provocative tale sets mind reeling

  
  

Joanne Dubach, Thomas Gebbia and Gail Rastorfer in a scene from "Hickorydickory" by Marisa Wegrzyn, directed by Russ Tutterow. (Photo credit: Chicago Dramatists)

      
Chicago Dramatists presents
   
  
Hickorydickory
   
   
Written by Marisa Wegrzyn
Directed by Russ Tutterow
at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through June 12  | 
tickets: $32  |  more info

Reviewed Catey Sullivan

In Hickorydickory, Chicago playwright Marisa Wegrzyn has penned a piece with the potential for becoming a mind-bending, provocative black comedy. With bloody and disturbing – and bloody disturbing – finesse, she spins a story that’s part smart dysfunctional family comedy, part coming-of-age drama and part gore-packed thriller.

But – and this is a significant “but” – Hickorydickory in many ways still feels like an early draft rather than a polished, finished product. Clocking in at a few minutes under three hours, it is in serious need of editing. Moreover, Wegrzyn keeps the rules she establishes for her fantasy sci-fi-esque tale of mortality in place only so long as they suit the plot. That means Hickorydickory is marred by false crises. Imagine the story of Rapunzel – girl trapped in an inaccessible tower, prince faced with the challenge of accessing it – but instead of ending with a creative solution involving a hair ladder, happily-ever-after is achieved when the prince suddenly realizes he can fly. Even in the worlds of fantasy, magic and sci-fi, the parameters need to be consistent for the dramatic tension to hold.

Hickorydickory’s chief strength lies in Wegrzyn’s ability to merge the ordinary with the fantastical. Her characters are people you know, a relatable, middle-class family forced to contend with situations one would expect to see wizards or sorcerers or elves in. It’s not really magical realism. Hickorydickory isn’t awash in dreamscapes and phantasms. Instead, it shows the everyday nuts, bolts and blood of living with something that just happens to defy the rules of science and the space-time continuum.

Director Russ Tutterow deftly merges both the ordinariness and the mind-blowing fairy tale-esque elements of Hickorydickory. Early on, the worlds of the real and the surreal clash with an impact that elicits laughter and gasps in the same moment. Attempting to repair an old pocket watch, a watch repair apprentice carefully opens the shiny antique – and gets an eyeful of blood when a crimson geyser spews from he workings. It’s an extraordinary event in an ordinary moment, powerfully realized.

Thoas Gebbia and Gail Rastorfer in a scene from "Hickorydickory" by Marisa Wegrzyn, directed by Russ Tutterow. (Photo credit: Chicago Dramatists)

Clearly, we’re not dealing with Swatches here. Third-generation (at least) clock and watch repairer Jimmy (Thomas Gebbia) specializes in a very particular brand: Mortal clocks. As Jimmy and his wife Kate (Gail Rastorfer) explain with exposition that is seamlessly woven into Wegrzyn’s conversational dialogue, mortal clocks reveal the precise moment – and cause – of their owner’s death. Most people are unaware of their mortal clocks, but every once in a great while someone is tragically born with their mortal clock lodged in the brain instead in its proper place behind the heart. Those unfortunate souls are burdened with knowing when, where and how they will die. Along with that heavy knowledge, they are continually subjected to a relentless tick-tocking countdown toward that final, fatal moment.

Life with this birth defect isn’t living, laments Jimmy’s 17-year-old daughter Dale (Cathlyn Melvin), it’s dying. And Dale is doubly burdened – first with the knowledge of her death’s date, and second with the fact that although she’s only a senior at New Trier, the date is imminent. Her life is a death march, her doom quite literally weighing on her mind.

Dale’s escape from the torturous ticking lies at the center of Wegrzyn’s plot. In flashbacks, we meet Dale’s teenage parents and learn the traumatic circumstances that led to her clock becoming misplaced. We also learn the lore of mortal clockery, much of it kept in a tome that looks, appropriately, like something out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It’s in the user’s manual that Wegrzyn falters. As two generations of clock shop owners assert, the years allotted by a mortal clock are inalterable. Or at least they are until someone conveniently finds a timely exception.

Hickorydickory is marred by inconsistencies in aging as well. Some people with mortal clocks (Dale’s grandmother, Helen) stop aging at a seemingly random point, while others age normally. On a similar note: Dale’s father Jimmy is supposed to be in his early-mid 30s but looks to be in his 50s. Since the math of their ages plays an important role in the plot, his premature aging is a tad distracting.

And for all Hickorydickory’s need of editing, Wegrzyn leaves some tantalizing issues curiously unexamined. Dale’s mother Cari Lee (Joanne Dubach) doesn’t age. Unlike Helen, Cari Lee’s arrested development is explained. But how does a person trapped at 17 survive for decades? Cari Lee is a sort of female Peter Pan, trying to live outside the cocoon of Neverland. But beyond making her a spoiled, immature brat who becomes irritating after her first scene, Wegrzyn fails to plumb Cari Lee’s psychology – or explain why she hasn’t been accused by her neighbors of being a vampire. Another hole: Characters occasionally bump into younger versions of themselves, even though there’s never any indication that mortal clocks can conjure up living, corporeal flashbacks.

Still, Hickorydickory sets the mind reeling with its implications. And the cast, many of them playing two roles, is solid. As Dale and the young incarnation of Kate, Melvin is terrific. She ably captures both Dale’s profound inner sadness at knowing when she’s destined to die and the tough, sarcastic outer exterior she dons to cope with that sadness. Rastorfer is capable as Dale’s loving stepmother Kate, although as Dale’s grandmother Helen she’s rather like Norma Desmond swanning through an especially grandiose audition – which is to say, more melodramatically suited to a silent movie than a realistic drama.

The other wonderfully realized aspect of Hickorydickory is Simon Lashford’s detailed set. Crammed with every imaginable kind of clock – grandfathers down to pocket watches – it’s an emporium where it feels like the past truly lives alongside the present. Barry Bennett’s original music is an evocative mix of echo-ey strings and delicate percussive ticks. If the passage of time made a sound, this would be it.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Chicago Dramatists’ Hickorydickory continues through June 12th at their performance space, 1105 W. Chicago (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $32, and can be purchased from their online box office. For more information, go to chicagodramatists.org.

  

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Review: Ismene (Dream Theatre)

     
     

A marathon of self-indulgence

     
     

Jeremy Menekseoglu as Te in Dream Theatre's Ismene

   
Dream Theatre Company presents
  
  
Ismene
   
   
Written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu
at Dream Theatre, 556 W 18th St. (map
through June 5  |  tickets: $15 – $18  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

A good rule of courtesy for Chicago theatre companies to follow ought to be: if a production’s runtime exceeds two hours on a weeknight, there must be some warning of this information somewhere, be it on the theatre company’s website or in the program. In Jeremy Menekseoglu’s at times excruciating three hour long production of Ismene, Dream Theatre makes that information available to no one anywhere. This is a selfish and disrespectful lack of consideration to the Chicago theatergoing community, many who have jobs on weekdays in this blue collar town. Anne Menekseoglu as Ismene in Dream Theatre's "Ismene", written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu. (Photo: Giau Truong)Menekseoglu is the playwright, director, sound designer, scenic designer and lead actor in what is ultimately a festival of self indulgence for the artist who holds his audience captive (literally the door to the Pilsen space is locked after the show begins giving patrons a struggle to exit at the two hour intermission mark). While there are several talented actresses involved in Ismene, the script and lack of direction take the life out of their skills with a monotonous overly clichéd meta-theatrical affair.

The evening actually starts out rather interesting with a Circus barker (an intriguing Chad Sheveland) greeting the audience at the door of the storefront lobby along with Thespia (Natalie Breitmeyer), the first member of the chorus (of the Greek variety) to escape and develop individual thoughts. After this brief pre-show we are introduced to Ismene (the very same sister to Antigone). Anna Menekseoglu as the title character in the prologue is captivating, delivering a monologue that is an example of the potential poetic skill of the playwright. She declares that her chorus has died, leaving herself to the decisions of independent will. This concept is interesting enough, but Jeremy Menekseoglu’s script only gets more and more muddled from here allowing the production to slowly spiral downward to a point where nothing can remain compelling or entertaining.

While the audience is still in the front lobby during this pre-show, Erin (a feisty Michelle Apalategui) convinces Ismene to come with her to a school for forgotten girls. At this point the audience is escorted into the larger auditorium space where Menekseoglu has housed his massive set. We learn that the school is run by Procne (played by Rachel Martindale with a captivating vocal quality), who is also known in Greek myth for killing her son and feeding his flesh to her husband. However, if you are unaware of the intricacies of this myth and the tapestry created by her sister Philomena (Alicia Reese), it will all play as just another confounding layer in this dense play. The myth could be seen in a far superior adaptation last year in Red Tape Theatre’s The Love of the Nightingale (our review).

Eventually, the story goes every which way, including the presence of a zombie Greek chorus (which should’ve been a way cooler concept). Jeremy Menekseoglu plays Te, who at first is thought to be one of the chorus. Menekseoglu, while displaying strong physicality, is macabre for the sake of being so and lavishes in it far too much to no effect by kissing, abusing and molesting most of the women throughout. There is a slight parallel throughout the play, which could be focused on further, to fighting breast cancer and rejecting acceptance of your fate. However, Menekseoglu’s actions on stage somewhat contradict the female empowerment message. Also, there is an excess of themes, motifs, characters and plots trying to be tackled to give any one of them their due attention.

         
Alicia Reese as Philomena in Dream Theatre's "Ismene", by Jeremy Menekseoglu Dream Theatre's "Ismene", by Jeremy Menekseoglu Chad Sheveland as The Barker in Dream Theatre's "Ismene", by Jeremy Menekseoglu

It’s undeniable that Menekseoglu and Dream Theatre have an ambitious aesthetic. At times they excel, such as their well received production of Electra (review ★★★½). However, it’s also clear that at times like this they become lost in their vision and become far too precious with each character and aspect of the story. Moments like peering into the audience and contemplating the presence of the audience as voyeurs is a provoking concept the first time, but Menekseoglu takes the convention past resonance by devoting a plethora of time for each character to have this experience. The effect is entirely inward for the actors’ own pleasure and indulgent to the point where the audience is truly delegated to simply being a presence while Menekseoglu and the cast can revel in themselves. The production and script clearly needs a true director keeping the audience in mind and cutting extraneous elements to convey the play and a unified message more successfully.

The evening is packed with tragic stories being revealed endlessly, many with five minute long melancholy monologues to accompany them. The tragedy cannot have any emotional effect after a certain point. Furthermore, Menekseoglu’s distracting and dreary soundtrack is oppressive, forcing the performances to go along at its tedious pace. Near the end of Menekseoglu’s production when Ismene considers gouging her eyes out with her father’s (Oedipus) needles, I couldn’t help but almost relate with her after three hours watching this bloated display of self-serving theatre.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

Annelise Lawson as Iphigenia in Dream Theatre's "Ismene" by Jeremy Menekseoglu

Dream Theatre Company presents Ismene, written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu. The show runs through Sunday, June 5th at Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th Street, Chicago. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm Sundays at 7:00 p.m. with a Monday performance on Memorial Day, May 30th at 8pm. Tickets are $15 – $18 and can be reserved by visiting dreamtheatrecompany.com or by calling 773-552-8616.

  
  

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Review: No More Dead Dogs (Griffin Theatre)

  
  

Griffin Theatre focuses on ‘Dead Dog’ fun

  
   

Alex Kyger, Colton Dillion, Cameron Harms, Jeff Duhigg and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

  
Griffin Theatre presents
  
  
No More Dead Dogs
   
Based on novel by Gordon Korman
Adapted by William Massolia
Directed by Dorothy Milne
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Just what is it about children’s literature? On the one hand, classics in the genre can zap heartstrings and endear us to them forever. On the other hand, they, too, fall back on tired formulas that make us wonder what we ever saw in them. Heaven help the public school teacher trying to turn kids onto literature using “age appropriate” work from the 1950s. Wallace Wallace (Ryan Lempka) is just the kind of kid who won’t accept that kind of fodder without blunt and unforgiving commentary. Griffin Theatre’s latest production at Theatre Wit, No More Dead Dogs, follows Wallace’s keen observation that many books for young people, such as “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows”, often have dogs die in them in order to foster some tear-jerking Ellie Reed and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"realization about life for the young reader. (Don’t get us started about Bambi.)

But dead dogs and orphaned deer aside, Griffin’s show, under the easy, swift and agile direction of Dorothy Milne, is a joyous romp for both cast and audience. Co-Artistic Director William Massolia has adapted Gordon Korman’s best-selling comic novel for the stage and his light handling of the ‘tween material usually carries off without a hitch. Wallace, having been lied to so often by his Dad (Jeff Duhigg), simply cannot bring himself to lie about anything, ever—including how much he thinks the book he’s assigned to report, “Old Shep, My Pal”, stinks. Too bad his English teacher, Mr. Fogelman (Jeremy Fisher), can’t accept that his favorite children’s classic may be past its prime. He perpetually puts Wallace in detention until he can write a book report that meets with his approval. What could have been Wallace’s irresistible force running into Fogelman’s immovable object instead morphs into school jock meets the drama club, since Fogelman has adapted “Old Shep, My Pal” for their next production.

By no means is No More Dead Dogs a John Hughes drama. Crafted for younger audiences, the comedy kindly skirts the rancor between high school cliques. Indeed, sub-cultural clashes become virtually negligible once Wallace starts updating Fogelman’s adaptation to something his classmates can relate to. This includes incorporating Vito’s (Joey deBettencourt) garage band, The Dead Mangoes, into the production, much to Fogelman’s chagrin. Lempka strongly shows he knows the importance of being earnest in his humorously straightforward interpretation of Wallace. Fisher, however, almost steals the show, as Fogelman journeys from escalating frustration over his play being usurped, to hip cat on a sax once the band tells him he can join.

          
 Cameron Harms, Jeff Duhigg and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs" Ellie Reed and Joey Eovaldi in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

Ellie Reed and Cameron Harms in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs". (background: The Mangos)

Indeed, much as the play spoofs stale children’s lit, the show looks strangely reminiscent of zany, overtly physical 50s comedy, where every character pretty much stays in type and the show winds up even more crazy from there. Milne’s direction never overplays its hand but always builds the action to its appropriately goofy outcomes. Wallace is solidly flanked by his football buddies and the nerdier drama club, with Joey Eovaldi adding coy and energetic mischief in his role as the younger Dylan. Would that the parts of Rachel (Elllie Reed) and Trudi (Samantha Dubina) could have gone beyond girls-with-crushes-on-the-lead cliches—but at least Reed and Dubin handle their characters sportingly and generously. In fact, one would be hard put to find a more good-natured production, focused solely on dealing out firm and lively fun for the young, than this.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Joey deBettencourt, Erin O'Shea, Morgan Maher and Jeremy Fisher as The Mangos in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

Griffin Theatre’s No More Dead Dogs continues at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through June 19th, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25-$30, and can be purchased by phone (773-975-8150) or online.  More info at www.griffintheatre.com.

  
  

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