Review: Aces (Signal Ensemble)

        
       

Steinhagen’s characters are fun but lack completed plot

  
  

Aaron Snook, Vincent Lonergan, Joseph Stearns, Jon Steinhagen, Philip Winston and Simone Roos in Signal Ensemble's "Aces" by Jon Steinhagen. (Photo: Johnny Knight)

   

Signal Ensemble presents

   
   

Aces

    

Written by Jon Steinhagen
Directed by Ronan Marra
at Signal Theatre, 1802 W. Bernice Ave. (map)
through June 18th
tickets: $15-$20 |   more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

It’s a challenge for me to watch Joseph Stearns and not imagine him to be the theatrical embodiment of Keith Richards, a persona he nailed even without bearing the most striking resemblance to the rock star god in Signal Ensemble’s Aftermath (our review). Lucky for me in Jon Steinhagen’s new play, Aces, the character Stearns plays is not too far of a stretch from the vice-ridden musician. Director Ronan Marra’s ensemble truly taps into this world perfectly. The characters are all delineated with their own passions and eccentricities. Steinhagen makes some clever but not too obvious 70’s references. Now if only Steinhagen could give his characters a Duke (Joseph Stearns, left)  tries to charm Samantha (Simone Roos, right) with his dance moves, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of “Aces” by ensemble member Jon Steinhagen, directed by Ronan Marra, opening May 14, 2011, 8 p.m., and running Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m., through June 18.  (Photo: Johnny Knight)consistent plot to allow us to invest more interest in them, this play would be something worth betting on. Unfortunately though, what starts as a fun con-artist story with possibilities of a feminist theme on the side, goes every which way attempting to give each character their own equally important arc which ultimately waters down all of them. Aside from a few strong scenes, the fun dwindles as the play progresses.

The tone of the writing is a little like M*A*S*H. We go from screwball comedy to sentimental love and friendship and back again. Throw in some anti-war sentiments, all set in 1975 Vegas. Instead of military surgeons though, Aces deals with the profession of casino card dealers (at least it does for a little while). The setup is a scam being run by a group of dealers and casino workers. The ringleader of the operation is Lloyd (played by the wonderful character actor Vincent Lonergan). The issue at the top of the play though is that one of the dealers has died, and the scam called “Aces” can no longer operate without the proper number of dealers on the floor. In comes Samantha (Simone Roos) as the new blackjack dealer hired. Let the clichéd ‘boob’ jokes begin. The other female in the cast is Linda (played with great complexity by Elizabeth Bagby), the cocktail waitress with an edge and failed hopes.

The original idea is for each of the members of the scam to go out with Samantha and see if she’s the type of individual who might be willing to take part in it. Time soon tells that this gal from Reno can hang with these Vegas low-lifes. She even has the capability to improve the scam. However, Steinhagen vacates the scam storyline around this point and focuses on each individual character, Steinhagen himself playing the alcoholic floor manager who is lonely after his younger brother Pete (an excellent Philip Winston) moves out. Samantha now becomes a tool to explore what’s going on inside each of the other characters and develops a close relationship to Pete, the most innocent of the bunch. The best, most human and intimate scene of the night is between the two of them sitting on the floor around a lamp she buys to help decorate his empty bachelor pad. Everyone in this group is stuck where they are, mostly for money reasons, to which Samantha asks one of the more resonant questions of the night, “Don’t any of you live within your means?”

     
A scene from Jon Steinhagen's new play "Aces", presented by Signal Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Johnny Knight) A scene from Jon Steinhagen's new play "Aces", presented by Signal Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Johnny Knight)
A scene from Jon Steinhagen's new play "Aces", presented by Signal Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Johnny Knight) A scene from Jon Steinhagen's new play "Aces", presented by Signal Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Johnny Knight)

There is definitely a fair share of zingers in Steinhagen’s script with plenty of “breaking balls” in the same vein as Goodfellas. Some of them land stealthily and other’s don’t, but as with any comedic writing you have to put it in front of an audience to see what gets laughs and the lackluster punch lines can easily be swapped out. More than anything though I just longed to know whose story this was and for the stakes to be higher. Duke’s debt issue, for one, is a little too easily solved.

Simone Roos gives life to this play with her smart, sexy performance playing Samantha as never quite what she seems. Stearns is a delight and his disco dancing is hysterical. Representing the anti-war nomadic class of the 70’s is Aaron Snook’s character, Garrett. Snook masters the art of silence and strums a lovely guitar.

Ronan Marra’s direction gets the swagger correct, but it doesn’t hit sightlines. With three-quarter seating, Marra places characters directly in front of each section of the audience. While it works when you happen to be the particular audience in front of the central action (almost always the center), more often than not you have to settle for an audio experience listening closely to what’s happening on the other side of the room while you can only stare at a blackjack dealer two feet in front of you. Even while there are only two characters on stage, Marra has the actors on the same plane, still making life difficult for the audience in the alley seating sections. Part of the sightline issue derives from Melania Lancy’s set, which is ultimately too flat and two-dimensional, forcing actors to hug the back wall too frequently.

In the end, this is much more sentimental character study than Ocean’s 11 style heist plot. This would be less of a problem, except that there is so much setup to the scam that when Steinhagen decides to drop that part of the story almost entirely it feels like the first half of the play was a waste. Nevertheless, the character interplay is light and a great time. It’s an entertaining group of characters to spend a couple hours with, just don’t expect to feel closure in the end, and be sure to sit in the center.

    
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Samantha (Simone Roos, left) shows Linda (Elizabeth Bagby, right) her dealing tricks, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of “Aces” by ensemble member Jon Steinhagen, directed by Ronan Marra, opening May 14, 2011, 8 p.m., and running Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m., through June 18. (Photo: Johnny Knight)

Signal Ensemble Theatre presents the fourth production in their 2010-2011, eighth anniversary season, the world premiere comedy Aces, written by ensemble member and multiple Jeff award-winner Jon Steinhagen, and directed by Ronan Marra at Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 West Berenice Ave. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 for full price and $15 for industry/students/seniors. $5 OFF all full-priced tickets on Memorial Day weekend, May 26-29. For more information or to buy tickets call 773-347-1350 or visit www.signalensemble.com. The show runs about 110 minutes with one intermission, and $5 from every ticket sold on June 11 will benefit www.SeasonofConcern.org

Photos by Johnny Knight.

     

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Review: Down & Dirty Romeo & Juliet (Shattered Globe)

  
  

Who will play your Romeo? Who will be your Juliet?

  
  

Dion Rice (Romeo) and Alice Pacyga (the Nurse) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s interactive and ever-changing production of DOWN & DIRTY ROMEO & JULIET playing at various Chicago venues.  (Photo: Kevin Viol)

   
Shattered Globe Theatre presents
  
  
Down & Dirty Romeo & Juliet
   
   
Written by William Shakespeare
Directed by Roger Smart
at various Chicago locations (see below)
through July 17  |  tickets: $18   |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

‘Where art thou Romeo?’  Well, Juliet, last time I saw him, he was on the 94th floor of the Hancock….

Shattered Globe Theatre presents Down & Dirty Romeo & Juliet.  Shakespeare’s greatest love story ever told is being told in various locales around the city.  The Montagues and Capulets hate each other.  Their family feud is the town’s gang problem.  For fun, the Montagues crash the Capulets’ house party. It’s just a silly prank until Romeo falls hard for the host’s daughter.  But he’s not alone in enemy territory, Juliet is equally smitten.  Their forbidden love unites them in fatal ecstasy.  Christina Gorman (Lady Capulet) and Angie Shriner (Juliet) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s interactive and ever-changing production of DOWN & DIRTY ROMEO & JULIET playing at various Chicago venues.  (Photo: Kevin Viol)The story is familiar.  The surroundings may not be.  Shattered Globe takes Shakespeare’s ‘all the world’s a stage’ to heart and hits the road.  Down & Dirty Romeo & Juliet is a classic to go!

The unique experience starts upon arrival.  At check-in, the audience must pick a side.  Each guest is literally labeled Montague or Capulet.  A cheat sheet of Shakespearian insults is issued to help the discord mood.  Guests are encouraged to concoct personalized abuse from piecing together four columns of choices.  My favorite is ‘grow unsightly warts thou puking maggot-pie.’  It’s all a part of a build-your-own-adventure theme.  Before the show starts, actors are introduced with their potential parts.  By applause and cheers, the audience decides on the starting line-up.  Roles are assigned and the action starts immediately.  There’s no curtain, stage or fourth wall separating the drama from reality.  The story unfolds in between tables.  Because they are wearing street clothes, it’s impossible to tell the actors from the audience. At the Capulet’s dance party, it’s a blur of family enemies and non-acting revelry.  The interactive experience is a surreal engagement. 

Under the direction of Roger Smart, the show is tightly paced professionalism. It’s an impressive surprise. The informality around the show, before it starts and during intermission, seems to indicate a more loose affair.  The charades-in-the-living-room comfy vibe is sidelined as the first line cues up the polished acting.  The Shakespearean prose is delivered with conversational passion. On the night I attended, the doomed lovers were Behzad Dabu (Romeo) and Melissa Nedell (Juliet). Dabu and Nedell have all the youthful innocence of love at first sight: charming, lusty, slightly clumsy flirtation. Their sweet synergy produces a hopeful optimism for a possible different story outcome. The entire cast fights, dances, dies with zesty commitment. Despite the obvious rehearsed mastery, there is still an improv twist.  An actor will interface with an audience member as in conversation or just by stealing a sip of beer.  During my performance, a young girl was coughing during Lord Capulet’s (Brad Woodward) monologue.  With a perfectly uttered ‘we are all dying’ line, Woodward cracks the house up.  Alice Pacyga (Nurse) is hilarious delivering some sass while chomping down at the refreshment table.

Dion Rice (Romeo) interacts with audience member (Balthasar) in Shattered Globe Theatre’s interactive and ever-changing production of DOWN & DIRTY ROMEO & JULIET playing at various Chicago venues. (Photo: Kevin Viol)The Hancock provided incomparable scenery to the Shakespearean tragedy. The sunset magnificently filled the room with a vibrant glow. Although missing its earlier line cue, the moon did finally rise beautifully over the lake. In the background, the city shimmered into its evening wear adding an urban enchantment. It looks stunning but it sounds not so attractive. The only issue with the Hancock locale is the noise level. The show utilizes the Observatory’s café for the production. It’s not closed to the non-theatre public. Unfortunately, the chatter is most distracting at very tender moments when the actors use softer voices. Because the tale is legendary, the issue doesn’t poison the overall effect. It just annoyingly stabs it… several times. Down & Dirty Romeo & Juliet is an entertaining one-of-a-kind theatrical experience…every show!

  
  
Rating: ★★★
    
   

Performance Times and Locations (more to come)

        
Monday, May 16th, 7:30pm
Hancock Observatory, 875 N. Michigan
Tickets only $3 
Buy Tickets
  Thursday, May 19th, 7:00 PM
The Spot, 4437 N. Broadway
Tickets: $18 
Buy Tickets
            
Sunday, May 22nd, 7:30pm 
Hancock Observatory, 875 N. Michigan  
Tickets: $18
Buy Tickets
  Tuesday, May 24th, 7:00pm
Schubas, 3159 N. Southport
Tickets $18
Buy tickets
       
Sunday, May 29th, 7:00pm
Justins, 3358 N. Southport  
Tickets: $18
Buy Tickets
   July 17th, 24th and 31st
Millennium Park, 201 E. Randolph
Times and Tickets: TBA

Angie Shriner (Juliet) and Dion Rice (Romeo) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s interactive and ever-changing production of DOWN & DIRTY ROMEO & JULIET playing at various Chicago venues. (Photo: Kevin Viol)Running Time:  Two hours and fifteen minutes includes an intermission

  
  

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Wednesday Wordplay: Correct punctuation can save lives

wednesday wordplay