Review: The Gospel According to James (Victory Gardens)

  
  

History is anything but black and white in “Gospel”

  
  

André De Shields as James in Victory Garden's "The Gospel According To James" by Charles Smith (photo: Liz Lauren)

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
  
The Gospel According to James
   
Written by Charles Smith
Directed by Chuck Smith
at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 12  | 
tickets: $35-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

On Aug. 7, 1930, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched in the town of Marion, Indiana. The two African-American men allegedly murdered a white local factory worker and raped his white girlfriend. Instead of allowing the justice system to weigh whether the men were truly guilty, the townspeople took the law into their own hands and tore down the jailhouse doors. Beaten and bloody, the bodies of both men were strung up on an tree. Studio photographer Lawrence Beitler managed to immortalize the horrific event, snapping a picture of the bodies swinging from the tree as a crowd of joyful onlookers stand below. Today, that picture serves as a powerful and grizzly reminder of the consequences of racial intolerance.

Kelsey Brennan as Mary and Tyler Jacob Rollinson as Abe Smith in Charles Smith’s "The Gospel According to James. (photo: Liz Lauren)No one knows precisely what events transpired that led to the charges against Thomas and Abram. James Cameron, a third black man initially identified as an accomplice to the crime, was spared from death at the hands of the mob. He would later state in interviews that he fled the seen before the murder took place. Marie Ball, the woman who was allegedly raped, would later testify that she was, in fact, never raped.

This ambiguity makes the case of Thomas and Abram ripe for speculation. And so playwright Charles Smith has embarked on crafting a script that dramatizes what may have transpired throughout those days leading up to the lynching. What results is an intriguing work of historical fiction that wisely steers away from tired cliché and instead focuses on the inherent flaws of memory.

The play is about an imagined meeting between James Cameron (portrayed by André De Shields and Anthony Peeples) and Marie Ball (portrayed by Linda Kimbrough and Kelsey Brennan). Fate has brought them back to Marion. In the passing years, Cameron has taken it upon himself to be the vocal historian of that tragic night. His account parallels that of the real-life history of the event: Abram (Tyler Jacob Rollinson) and Thomas (Wardell Julius Clark) held up former foundry worker Claude (Zach Kenney), and before the murder occurred, Cameron fled the scene.

But Marie does not remember it this way. She resents Cameron for spreading lies and threatens to reveal her version of the truth to the public. As Marie recounts her recollection of the events that led to that ugly night, we see her memories take dramatic form. According to her, Claude was hardly an innocent victim. James was more involved than he claims to be. And she and Thomas were much more than mere acquaintances. But despite her compelling account, Marie’s cognizance is called into question, and we are forced to wonder whose story, if anyone’s, is the real deal.

The cast is captivating. Shields is energetic and expressive as the aged James, while Kimbrough serves as an effective forlorn foil. Meanwhile, the scenes between Marie’s parents (portrayed by Diane Kondrat and Christopher Jon Martin) are powerful, while Kenney is a believable slime ball. There is real chemistry between Rollinson and Brennan, which makes Abram’s lynching that much more heartbreaking. Peeples is the only odd man out here. His portrayal of the youthful version of James is cartoonishly juvenile. He speaks in a childlike tone and talks like an imbecile. This is a complete disconnect from the adult James, who is well spoken and refined.

Smith is a smart playwright. He could have used the Marion lynching as a platform to soapbox about the ills of racism, a trite topic that always falls on agreeable ears. Instead, he focuses on memory and the subjectiveness of history. This is a much more interesting subject to parse, and he does a good job of portraying it dramatically. However, there are a few bumps in the script, particularly when the dialogue veers too far into poetry, creating a sense of melodrama.

Victory Gardens’ production of The Gospel According to James is an engaging fictional account of a historical event. Despite its minor flaws, the solid acting and a strong script prevail, making it a thoroughly entertaining watch.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Anthony Peeples as Apples, Kelsey Brennan as Mary and Wardell Julius Clark as Tommy Shipp in Charles Smith’s "The Gospel According To James" at Victory Gardens Theatre (photo: Liz Lauren)

Ticket Prices: $35-$50, Students with I.D.- $20, and can be purchased by phone 773.871.3000 or via e-mail (tickets@victorygardens.org).   Performance Times: Tues-Saturday: 7:30pm, Saturday Matinee: 4pm, Sunday Matinee: 3pm, Wednesday Matinee: 2pm.   Recommended Age: 16 & up

  
  

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Review: Fifty Words (Profiles Theatre)

        
        

A rapid-fire assault on a crumbling marriage

  
  

Darrell W. Cox and Katherine Keberlein in Profile Theater's "Fifty Words", by Michael Weller.  (Photo: Wayne Karl)

  
Profiles Theatre presents
   
  
Fifty Words
  
Written by Michael Weller
Directed by Joe Jahraus
at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway (map)
through June 26  |  tickets: $35-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

On the way to Profiles, my friend and I were discussing how a play is like the season finale of a TV show, when months, even years worth of plots come to a head, often leaving the audience on a cliffhanger that makes them crave more. The difference is that a play doesn’t have a season’s worth of episodes leading up to it, and playwrights have to integrate all that history into the script without breaking the momentum of the present catastrophe. Michael Weller’s Fifty Words condenses ten years worth of marital crises into a 90-minute whirlwind of exposed secrets and pent-up aggression, as Jan (Katherine Keberlein) and Adam (Darrell H. Cox) spend their first night alone together in 9 years. With their son Dylan in Staten Island for a sleepover, Adam sees the evening as a rare opportunity to revive their struggling sex life, attempting to seduce his wife while she’s preoccupied with their son and her upstart online business. Champagne and take-out aren’t enough to take Jan’s mind off Dylan’s troubling behavior at school and Adam’s lengthy business trips to the Midwest, and the dinner discussion turns ugly as truths come out that could potentially destroy their family.

Darrell W. Cox and Katherine Keberlein in Profile Theater's "Fifty Words", by Michael Weller.  (Photo: Wayne Karl)Weller writes quick dialogue that Keberlein and Cox maneuver swiftly, snapping at each other like animals as the stakes are heightened. The mood is constantly shifting as the aggression between the two turns sexual, and Joe Jahraus’ direction captures the tension well, especially in the intimate (some one would say tight) Profiles space. The actors are kept on opposite ends of the kitchen when the arguments are at their fiercest, and when they are physically close it’s either to relieve the tension or because the tension just snapped. Lindsey Lyddan’s lighting design reflects the tonal shifts during the scenes changes, with cool blue washing over the sensual moments and stark red highlighting the more furious sequences. It’s a bit obvious, but it works in the context of Weller’s script, which has a lot of the standard tropes of the marriage power play –overbearing wife, inattentive husband, troubled child, infidelity – but approaches the concepts from intriguing new angles.

Fifty Words is about the relationship between power and desire, and Jan and Adam are in the paradoxical situation of wanting to take individual control of their marriage wile still wanting a more aggressive partner to fulfill personal desires. The conflict arises from the difference in their needs, with Jan wanting Adam to take a more active role in their son’s life while Adam is more concerned with getting his wife in bed. They’re both fully aware of the other’s demands, and they willfully withhold relief to make the other suffer. As revelations come out, the fighting becomes more violent, and sex becomes a weapon. Sex is a major driving force of the plot, and as usual, Profiles doesn’t shy away from the erotic elements of the script.

Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss tried to explain why audiences don’t like nudity and sex on stage, but embrace it on film, and there is certainly something unnerving about seeing a topless woman get ravaged by her husband on their kitchen counter. That’s also not necessarily a bad thing. Nudity creates a strong reaction from the audience, and when the subject is physically in the same room, there’s an added layer of intimacy, especially in Profiles’ small space. The comfort the two actors have in their intensely sexual scenes helps solidify their characters’ relationship, and we get a glimpse of the passion that brought them together in the first place.

Like the best season finales, Fifty Words ends on a hell of a cliffhanger, setting up plenty more story to never be explored. That’s the thing with plays: once the lights come up, the story is over. There’s the very rare play sequel/prequel, and there are playwrights like Martin McDonnagh and August Wilson who have recurring characters and locations through multiple works, but for the most part, this is the last time that you will see these characters. Michael Weller leaves Jan and Adam with their marriage in shambles, but their story lives on in what the audience takes away from this production. Profiles’ production reveals the complexities of love, and the ways that secrets and lies can corrode it from the inside. I’m reminded of a quote from another great marriage crisis play this season, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?: “Be careful who you fall in love with, because you might marry him.” Fifty Words is warning that no matter what word you use to describe it, love will always be an unpredictable force that can hurt as much as it heals.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Katherine Keberlein and Darrell W. Cox in Profile Theater's "Fifty Words", by Michael Weller.  (Photo: Wayne Karl)

Profile Theatre’s Fifty Words continues through June 26th at their theatre space, 4147 N. Broadway, with performances Thursday and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm and 8pm and Sundays at 7pm.  Tickets are $35-$40, and can be purchased by phone (773-549-1815) or online.

All photos by Wayne Karl

  
  

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Review: Murder for Two (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

     
     

Giddy, lighthearted show makes for perfect night at Navy Pier

     
     

Alan Schmuckler and Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s "Murder for Two—A Killer Musical", directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Navy Pier's Chicago Shakespeare. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

  
Chicago Shakespeare presents
  
  
Murder for Two – A Killer Musical
   
Music and Book by Joe Kinosian 
Lyrics and Book by Kellen Blair
Directed by David Bell 
at
Chicago Shakespeare, 800 E. Grand, Navy Pier (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $25-$30   |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

For all those who have ever wanted to just let loose on those entitled, staggeringly clueless cretins who let their cell phones ring in the theater – I mean really school them with an unsparing, five alarm verbal evisceration – there is a mighty catharsis that comes not once, not twice but three times within the confines of Murder for Two. Listening to Joe Kinosian go off after the loathsome twarbles (Who the fuck do you think you are?) invade the world of the play is not as deeply satisfying as hearing a skillfully delivered Shakespearian monologue. But it comes close. Such are the times we live in.

Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare. (Photo: Liz Lauren)As for the rest of Murder for Two, think The Mystery of Irma Vep infused with the world’s most gleefully wackadoodle piano recital. The two-person musical , which stars Alan Schmuckler as aspiring detective Marcus Moscowicz and Kinosian as nine murder suspects – is about as giddy and lighthearted as you can get short of climbing into a hermetically sealed, helium-filled bubble.

Kinosian (book and music) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics) take the familiar elements of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” and set them drunkenly careening through a music-filled spoof wherein homicide is hilarious and the climactic capture of the criminal isn’t nearly as important as the four-handed piano jam that follows it.

Directed by David Bell, Murder for Two is about as campy, over the top and self-consciously silly as theater gets. The piece is a showcase for the seemingly effortless madcap comic talents and fleet-fingered piano virtuosity of Schmuckler and Kinosian, whose musical repartee is just as important as their verbal repartee. The two manhandle and finesse the baby grand onstage with an athleticism you don’t usually associate with piano performance and a synergy that evokes Siamese twins – no mean feat, given that Kinosian is as lanky as a bean pole and limber as taffy while Schmuckler is significantly more compact both in personal architecture and in gesture.

The production’s highlight isn’t the solving of the murder, it’s the joyful, rollicking duet the pair unleash as an encore.

If that implies the balance of the show isn’t perfect, well, it isn’t. The primary problem here is that Murder for Two is a whodunit in which the “who” doesn’t really matter . It’s a genuine laff riot to be sure, and one in which the comedy is spectacularly well executed – but there’s never much momentum. Was it the self-absorbed ballerina, the looney tunes wife or the needy psychiatrist? Eh, who cares. The show doesn’t seem to care about creating a serviceable mystery as much as creating a comedy. If Murder for Two had both, it’d be killer. As it is, the show remains a marvelous romp.

Alan Schmuckler and Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Although be warned: If you’re not a fan of the meta-exaggerated mugging school of comedy, Kinosian’s camptacular overdrive will grow grating in a hurry. His mugging is so relentless you’d be forgiven for checking to ensure you still had your wallet post-show. He’s a shameless maelstrom of energy, playing a dizzying, high-energy whirl of suspects that include a daffy grad student in criminal justice, an ice maiden prima ballerina diva, a needy psychiatrist, an utterly insane party hostess (arguably Kinosian’s best work of the night) and a the trio of scamps (Skid, Yonkers and Timmy – think Our Gang crossed with a bunch of circus freaks) that comprise the 12-member all-boys choir brought in to entertain the guest of honor.

And then there’s Schmuckler. Having single-handedly saved Drury Lane’s tedious Sugar from being a total loss, he returns in fine form here. Moscowicz may not get to swan about the stage ronde de jambing or performing all-jazz-hands-on-deck disco showstoppers. He doesn’t need to. Wide-eyed and utterly sincere even as the lunacy reaches size XXL Crazypants, he makes you care and makes you laugh with equal force. He’s not showy, but he’s dazzling nonetheless.

Between them, Kinosian and Schmuckler almost makes you forgive the nagging fact that the murder mystery in Murder for Two seems irrelevant by the end.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Alan Schmuckler performs the role of the investigator and Joe Kinosian performs the roles of 13 murder suspects in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's premiere of Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, created by Kinosian (music/book) and Kellen Blair (lyrics/book) and directed by David H. Bell. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Photos by Liz Lauren and Michael Brosilow 

        
        

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Review: Murder for Two (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

     
     

Giddy, lighthearted show makes for perfect night at Navy Pier

     
     

Alan Schmuckler and Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s "Murder for Two—A Killer Musical", directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Navy Pier's Chicago Shakespeare. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

  
Chicago Shakespeare presents
  
  
Murder for Two – A Killer Musical
   
Music and Book by Joe Kinosian 
Lyrics and Book by Kellen Blair
Directed by David Bell 
at
Chicago Shakespeare, 800 E. Grand, Navy Pier (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $25-$30   |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

For all those who have ever wanted to just let loose on those entitled, staggeringly clueless cretins who let their cell phones ring in the theater – I mean really school them with an unsparing, five alarm verbal evisceration – there is a mighty catharsis that comes not once, not twice but three times within the confines of Murder for Two. Listening to Joe Kinosian go off after the loathsome twarbles (Who the fuck do you think you are?) invade the world of the play is not as deeply satisfying as hearing a skillfully delivered Shakespearian monologue. But it comes close. Such are the times we live in.

Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare. (Photo: Liz Lauren)As for the rest of Murder for Two, think The Mystery of Irma Vep infused with the world’s most gleefully wackadoodle piano recital. The two-person musical , which stars Alan Schmuckler as aspiring detective Marcus Moscowicz and Kinosian as nine murder suspects – is about as giddy and lighthearted as you can get short of climbing into a hermetically sealed, helium-filled bubble.

Kinosian (book and music) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics) take the familiar elements of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” and set them drunkenly careening through a music-filled spoof wherein homicide is hilarious and the climactic capture of the criminal isn’t nearly as important as the four-handed piano jam that follows it.

Directed by David Bell, Murder for Two is about as campy, over the top and self-consciously silly as theater gets. The piece is a showcase for the seemingly effortless madcap comic talents and fleet-fingered piano virtuosity of Schmuckler and Kinosian, whose musical repartee is just as important as their verbal repartee. The two manhandle and finesse the baby grand onstage with an athleticism you don’t usually associate with piano performance and a synergy that evokes Siamese twins – no mean feat, given that Kinosian is as lanky as a bean pole and limber as taffy while Schmuckler is significantly more compact both in personal architecture and in gesture.

The production’s highlight isn’t the solving of the murder, it’s the joyful, rollicking duet the pair unleash as an encore.

If that implies the balance of the show isn’t perfect, well, it isn’t. The primary problem here is that Murder for Two is a whodunit in which the “who” doesn’t really matter . It’s a genuine laff riot to be sure, and one in which the comedy is spectacularly well executed – but there’s never much momentum. Was it the self-absorbed ballerina, the looney tunes wife or the needy psychiatrist? Eh, who cares. The show doesn’t seem to care about creating a serviceable mystery as much as creating a comedy. If Murder for Two had both, it’d be killer. As it is, the show remains a marvelous romp.

Alan Schmuckler and Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Although be warned: If you’re not a fan of the meta-exaggerated mugging school of comedy, Kinosian’s camptacular overdrive will grow grating in a hurry. His mugging is so relentless you’d be forgiven for checking to ensure you still had your wallet post-show. He’s a shameless maelstrom of energy, playing a dizzying, high-energy whirl of suspects that include a daffy grad student in criminal justice, an ice maiden prima ballerina diva, a needy psychiatrist, an utterly insane party hostess (arguably Kinosian’s best work of the night) and a the trio of scamps (Skid, Yonkers and Timmy – think Our Gang crossed with a bunch of circus freaks) that comprise the 12-member all-boys choir brought in to entertain the guest of honor.

And then there’s Schmuckler. Having single-handedly saved Drury Lane’s tedious Sugar from being a total loss, he returns in fine form here. Moscowicz may not get to swan about the stage ronde de jambing or performing all-jazz-hands-on-deck disco showstoppers. He doesn’t need to. Wide-eyed and utterly sincere even as the lunacy reaches size XXL Crazypants, he makes you care and makes you laugh with equal force. He’s not showy, but he’s dazzling nonetheless.

Between them, Kinosian and Schmuckler almost makes you forgive the nagging fact that the murder mystery in Murder for Two seems irrelevant by the end.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Alan Schmuckler performs the role of the investigator and Joe Kinosian performs the roles of 13 murder suspects in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's premiere of Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, created by Kinosian (music/book) and Kellen Blair (lyrics/book) and directed by David H. Bell. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Photos by Liz Lauren and Michael Brosilow 

        
        

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Review: Summer Series (Hubbard Street Dance Chicago)

  
  

Spiraling into Summer

  
  

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Tech Run of Jiri kylian's 27'52" at Governors State University in University Park, IL. (photo: Rosenberg Photography)

   
Hubbard Street Dance presents
    
   
Summer Series
   
at Harris Theater, 205 E. Randolph, Millennium Park (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $25-$94  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago has returned to Randolph Street to showcase its Summer Series, a three-piece program that – if not as warm as the season it ushers in – generously records the latest passions in the world of dance as accurately as a seismograph.

The start of a bold, new collaboration, the most significant event was the company premiere of the evening’s second offering–the hauntingly named Following the Subtle Current Upstream. The 2000 creation of Alonzo King (originally commissioned by the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater), artistic director of the ground-breaking, San Francisco-based LINES Ballet, this free-wheeling experiment in motion has the ensemble, clad in monochromatic leotards, languorously or frenetically erupting to a score by Indian tabla composer Zakir Hussbain, South African balladeer Miriam Makeba and composer Miguel Frasconi.

Presumably depicting “the subtle currents that exist in the body as the path of liberation,” this fluid, sometimes seemingly improvised, choreography reflects King’s interest in grounding movement in the moment, with shifting combinations of dancers flowing in and ebbing out of formation, much like the thunder that interrupts the shape shifting. The Hubbard Dancers seem entirely at home in this inventive and self-fulfilling enterprise.

     
5/18/11 4:31:59 PM -- Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Jesse Bechard and Kellie Epperheimer perform Alonzo King's "Following the Subtle Current Upstream."  (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography) 5/18/11 4:24:18 PM -- Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Jonathan Fredrickson with Kevin Shannon and Christian Broomhall perform Alonzo King's "Following the Subtle Current Upstream."  © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2011

The remaining works are back by popular demand, opening with Aszure Barton’s Untouched, a maroon-hued creation performed against an elegant, half-opened curtain. Sensuous with sudden, gyrating hip swings and outstretched hands and performed to music by Njo Kong Kie, Curtis Macdonald and Ljova, Untouched was set in motion before the music was selected–so, unusual for dance, the latter is servant to the former. The result is a series of mysterious processions, comings and goings, separated by curious offstage wolf whistles, that managed to be sensuous and haunting. Hypnotic stuff, Untouched hardly describes its effect on the audience.

     
5/20/10 2:03:04 PM -- Hubbard Street Dance Chicago Tech Rehearsal for new work by Azsure Barton. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography) 5/20/10 3:17:07 PM -- Hubbard Street Dance Chicago Tech Rehearsal for new work by Azsure Barton. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2010

Finally, Jiri Kylian’s 27’52”, named for its near half-hour length, opens as a company warm-up, with a huge bank of lights dangling over the dancers. The dancers are then seen to perform on a tear-away white floor that will later give way to a tear-away black one. Like scenes from a David Lynch film, the diverse action unspools with a spoken text in English, German and French extolling the artist’s vocation. The score by Dirk Haubrich was backdrop to quirky movements, descending and ascending curtains, and jerky aerobic exercises that seemed to create a waking dream. Perhaps a bit too abstract to engage us beyond its eclectic activities, nonetheless this dance game of alternating intimate encounters followed by solo exits seems as much a metaphor for life itself as dance deserves.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  
1/20/10 4:59:52 PM -- Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Tech Run of Jiri kylian 27'52" at Governors State University in University Park, IL. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2010 1/20/10 4:41:29 PM -- Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Tech Run of Jiri kylian 27'52" at Governors State University in University Park, IL. © Todd Rosenberg Photography 2010
1/20/10 3:48:53 PM -- Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Tech Run of Jiri kylian 27'52" at Governors State University in University Park, IL. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography) Hubbard Street Dance Chicago's Tech Run of Jiri kylian' 27'52" at Governors State University in University Park, IL. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg Photography)
     

All photos by Todd Rosenberg Photography ©2010