REVIEW: Snow Days and Plane Delays (The Mime Company)

        
        

The beauty of silence enhances little Christmas rituals

  
  

The Mime Company - Snow Days and Plane Delays poster

  
The Mime Company presents
  
Snow Days & Plane Delays: Evening of Holiday Mime
   
Created by Mime Company ensemble
Directed by
Amanda Brown
at Studio BE, 3110 N. Sheffield
(map)
through Jan 2  |  tickets: $12-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Face it–Christmas is exhausting. The holiday demands physical, mental and emotional energy from everyone participating–and even from those who don’t. Decorating, shopping, cooking, wrapping gifts, assembling them, greeting friends and relatives—and then there’s the obstacle course of traveling to your holiday destination. Amanda Brown of The Mime Company directs a well honed and superbly disciplined troupe that can draw out the humor and poignancy of yearly Christmas rituals in their latest production, Snow Days and Plane Delays: an Evening of Holiday Mime. Nothing impresses like the exceeding professionalism of the total ensemble—their slightest gestures and facial expressions speak volumes, and their coordinated physical discipline astonishes.

A man packs up and prepares to leave for his flight. Interspersed between the trials and tribulations of his trip–going through security, finding a seat in the overcrowded waiting area, packing his carry-on luggage on the plane, etc.—are tales and scenes associated with Mime-Company-snow-days-square-posterChristmas. Carolers go door to door, struggling to find a receptive audience for their songs. A family struggles to take a decent Christmas photo through the years. A mother and father fuss over an assembly-required bicycle late into the night. All terribly familiar scenes, but more—the ensembles’ unity, balance and symmetry brings greater immediacy and intimacy to each relatively minor activity, evoking a closer and deeper look at each human relationship and gesture.

The Mime Company heightens the bittersweet passing of time with the shifting nature of family, as children emerge from childhood to take on the challenges of their parents’ care in “Family Photo Album.” “The Little Match Girl” resurfaces as a classic to remind audiences of the suffering of the destitute homeless during this time of year. Into the mix, the ensemble amuses with delightfully ridiculous situations—a guy just learning to ski, ballet dancers headed on a total Nutcracker train wreck, and couples losing and finding each other at the mall, while negotiating its bewildering assortment of escalators, elevators and walkways.

Snow Days and Plane Delays will only be playing over the January 2nd, so catch it in its short run as a breather from the holiday madness. Looking at all our frenzied rituals under the microscope of silence makes them special and, perhaps, even less arduous.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Video below: The Mime Company’s A Holiday Evening of  Mime in 2008, created by Matt Paolelli.

  
  

REVIEW: The Nativity (Congo Square)

  
  

Beautiful to Behold

  
  

Congo Square - The Black Nativity - Celebrating the Birth

   
Congo Square Theatre presents
  
   
The Nativity
  
Written by McKinley Johnson
Inspired by
Langston Hughes
Directed by
Aaron Todd Douglas
at Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $30-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I have been going to the theater in Chicago for over 40 years and Black-themed productions have a special place in my heart since I first witnessed Purlie Victorious! at what was the Monroe Theater in 1969. The power of seeing and hearing the old traditions, colloquialisms, and gospel or blues tinged singing remains with me. This year, I wasn’t feeling the so-called Christmas Spirit in full. The commercials started before I could plow through my Halloween stash of candy and make the turkey sandwiches from Thanksgiving. Thank goodness I got my hallelujah infusion from Congo Square’s production of The Nativity.

Kathleen Purcell Turner and Pierre Clark as Mary and JosephThis musical and dance extravaganza is written by McKinley Johnson and inspired by one of my favorite writers: Langston Hughes. The plot is the traditional Nativity story of the Visitation from the Angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary and the adventures that ensued in the birthing of the man known as Jesus.

The Black Nativity, which inspired this work, is one of the sacred plays written by Langston Hughes in the late 40’s and early 50’s as the Harlem Renaissance gave way to a stronger Civil Rights Movement in America. The Black theater had always been a strong presence due to segregation and discrimination. Hughes was always unabashed in his support and pride for Black traditions in music, poetry, and other art forms. Director Aaron Todd Douglas, Musical Director Jaret Williams and Choreographer Kevin Iega Jeff have built a beautiful monument on the foundations laid by Hughes and McKinley.

The combination of dance and spoken word make for a powerful and emotional tribute. Dancers Kathleen Purcell Turner and Pierre Clark portray the characters of Mary and Joseph. They never speak but project power, emotion and pain with dance. Ms. Turner is a wonder to watch as she portrays the birth pains, terror and exhaustion of travel on the run. If I had not been sitting so close I would wonder if she was held up or manipulated by invisible cords. Her beautiful and expressive face shows innocence, giddy youthful love, fear, and finally a maternal glow. She and Mr. Clark play perfectly off of each other as a couple in love.

Pierre Clark is an amazing high school senior who has perfected the role of Joseph. He emotes the youthful lust and royal bearing befitting a descendant of King Solomon. His acting is wonderful and the protection and joy of fatherhood is beautifully played through his dance moves. The choreography is reminiscent of Capoeira dancing – a blend of dance and martial arts that was forbidden during the slave trade in Colonial Brazil. It is a stunning and innovative take on choreography in a sacred work.

The cast of singing actors in The Nativity is from the ranks of Chicago’s finest actors. John Steven Crowley commands the stage as the Angel Gabriel and the narrator of the story. Alexis Rogers and Jeniel Smith shine as Athaliah and Johashobah. They are best friends at the washing creek and wives the fearsome King Herod. They have some funny and contemporary lines that ring true in modern society as well as ancient times.

Pierre Clark and Kathleen Purcell Turner as Joseph and MaryBlack Ensemble Theater regular, Kelvin Roston Jr., joins Ms. Rogers and Ms. Smith. Mr. Roston brings his handsome and convivial charm to the roles of Tax Collector, Inn Keeper, and Centurion. It is always a pleasure to see him perform.

Dwelvan David is a standout as King Herod. Mr. David’s striking features and imposing projection give him a perfect balance of fierce warrior, cunning politician, and comic foil.

The singing in this play is exceptional and pure gospel. The selections by Jaret Williams are soul-rousing and seemingly tailored to the singing talents of the cast. The moment the piano played I felt that I was ‘back in the day’. A special mention of Melody Betts and Dawn Bless is warranted for their roles of Mother of Mary and Elizabeth. They each have wonderful solos and shine in the roles of mother, confidant, and protectors of the Virgin Mary. Two other highlights are the song and dance combination of ‘Her Way’s Cloudy’ and the appearance of the Three Kings. The costumes are perfection in the choice of fabric and tailoring. (I was really close to the stage). The song ‘You Ought To Try The Lord’ is rocking, as is the ‘get happy in church’ dance by Jon Pierce.

I recommend The Black Nativity as a holiday tradition for everyone no matter your race or religious tradition. It’s perfect for the whole family and as an introduction to musical theater for younger children. Kudos to all of the parents in the audience as this was one of the best intergenerational audiences I have had the pleasure to be in. Happiest of Holidays to Everyone!

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Ensemble

The Congo Square Theatre production of The Nativity runs through December 31st at the Goodman Theatre,170 N. Dearborn in vibrant downtown Chicago. Please call 312-443-3800 for ticket information.

      
      

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REVIEW: Striking 12 (BoHo Theatre)

  
  

Good music does not a good musical make

  
  

Dustin Valenta, Mallory Nees, Eric Loughlin, Amy Steele

  
BoHo Theatre presents
  
  
Striking 12
 
Book/Music/Lyrics by Brendan Milburn,
Rachel Sheinkin and Valeria Vigoda 
Directed by
Lara Filip
at
BoHo Theatre, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through Jan 8  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Striking 12 isn’t so much a musical as it is a rock concert with a dramatic flare. The self-aware holiday play is about a fake rock band that tells the tale of a lonely man on New Year’s Eve who in turn tells the tale of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl”. It’s a story within a story within a story, but thanks to the lack of complexity and depth given to each plot line, it’s never particularly difficult to follow.

Dustin Valenta, Amy Steele, Mallory Nees, Eric LoughlinThe play begins with a bit of self-referential comedy and audience interaction. The actors enter and launch into a song about overtures that describes the conventions of an overture. The "band" then informs us that they are all actors before breaking the fourth wall by getting a band name from the audience. (The night I went they were Purple Nurple.)

Eventually, a story emerges about a recently single man (Eric Loughlin) who is alone on New Year’s Eve. Rather than attend the party of his wild and crazy friend (Dustin Valenta), he decides to sit like a bump on a log in the confines of his apartment. He is then visited by a door-to-door saleswoman (Mallory Nees), who is peddling full-spectrum holiday lights that fight off the winter blues. He denies her the sale, but not before having a brief conversation about “The Little Match Girl.” This inspires him to read the short story, which then becomes the dominating plot line of the play.

When there is less than 90 minutes to flesh out several concentric plots, you know the story is going to be a little light. And Striking 12 certainly is lacking when it comes to a compelling through line. But that’s not really what this play is about. Written by three successful musicians/composers (Brendan Milburn, Rachel Sheinkin and Valerie Vigoda), the selling point is the music and the talent of the performers. This certainly is a demanding production in that the actors must not only be able to act effectively, but they must also be able to sing and play instruments as well. And each one of the performers in BoHo Theatre Company’s production certainly is a triple threat. Valenta can drum and sing simultaneously, which is no easy task. Amy Steele is a gifted violinist and vocalist, while Nees’ ability to play guitar, bass, ukulele and the squeezebox is impressive.

Dustin Valenta, Mallory NeesBut is this good theatre? The music is catchy and reminiscent of artists like Ben Folds. The humor is bland, but it has its moments. The problem is the story. How can you have a good play without a compelling story? Striking 12‘s plot feels like an afterthought, as if the writers tried to squeeze elements of story into the piece after the music had been completed. By the play’s end, you have a few songs stuck in your head but not much else.

Additionally, the BoHo Theatre’s space doesn’t have the acoustics for a show like this. Vocals are easily overpowered by the thumps of a bass drum or even the singing of violin strings. The audio quality is akin to a basement rock show. The piece would be better served in a more spacious venue where the band doesn’t almost sit on top of the audience.

If you’re in the mood for a holiday-themed rock show, Striking 12 is a decent watch. But if you’re looking for good theatre, you’re striking out.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Mallory Nees, Eric Loughlin, Amy Steele, Dustin Valenta

  
  

  
  

Gift Theatre offers holiday show, extends ‘Lonesome West’

  
  

Gift Theatre ends 2010 with holiday play, ‘Lonesome West’ extension

  
  

The Lonesome West - Gift Theatre

Written by Allegra Gallian

The Gift Theatre is a Chicago-based theatre company situated in the north-west city neighborhood of Jefferson Park, taking the form an intimate 50-seat storefront space located at located at 4802 N Milwaukee Ave.

Map picture

The Gift Theatre Company, whose mission is to tell great stories on stage with honesty and simplicity, has been producing shows since 2001 with their premiere production of Boy’s Life. The company, led by Artistic Director Michael Patrick Thornton, has been consistently producing shows at their home location and around the city each year since then.

Most recently their 2010 season included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (review ★★½), Suicide, Incorporated (review ★★★), The Lonesome West (review ★★★) – and they celebrate the season with Get Behind Me, Santa! And The Lonesome West , directed by Sheldon Patinkin, has been so well received by both audiences and critics alike, it has been extended for another 5 weeks, now closing January 30, 2011!

Get Behind Me, Santa! is a two-act comedy performance using both sketch comedy and improv taking on all things holiday-related. Poking fun at everything from tacky sweaters to Yule logs and everything in between, The Gift Theatre Company partnered with the Gale Street Inn to bring a little extra cheer and good tidings to the city.

The Gift Theatre Company also celebrates the season every Wednesday and Friday with Natural Gas performed by the cast of Santa’s Great American Depression Holiday Show, America! The show offers 50 minutes of holiday amusement.

     
Josh Rollins and Mike Harvey - Gift Theatre Gift Theatre - Cuckoo Nest

Not only does the company continue to produce theatre, but they produce film as well under the name of giftFILM, led by artistic directors Kenny Mihlfried and John Kelly Connolly. Part of giftFILM’s mission is to, according the company’s Web site, “produce short and feature-length films and videos, primarily (but not exclusively) written, directed, and performed by ensemble or company members of the Gift Theatre Company, and to actively encourage an ongoing collaborative relationship between theater and filmmaking communities of the city of Chicago and surrounding areas.”

For more information see the Web site at http://www.thegifttheatre.org/.

 

VIDEO: Behind the scenes at Lonesome West, featuring Michael Patrick Thornton and John Gawlik.  Video shot by Aemilia Scott and Tom Blanford, edited by Aemilia Scott.

  
 

REVIEW: Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (BroadwayChicago)

        
        

Irving Berlin holiday classic receives rich, nostalgic production

        
        

Finale of Irving Berlin White Christmas

  
Broadway in Chicago and Broadway Across America presents
 
   
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
  
Written by David Ives and Paul Blake
Music by Irving Berlin
Directed by Norb Joerder
at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe (map)
through Jan 2  |  tickets: $25-$98  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Inspired by the 1954 film that itself builds on the 1944 delight “Holiday Inn” (which premiered the title song), Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is unashamedly old-fashioned, aggressively nostalgic, and filled with postwar optimism. How can it not be when the Irving Berlin classic with which it begins and ends is now a essential part of the holiday DNA for most Americans? The production values are vintage too—terrific tap dancing, go-for-broke jubilee choreography, cornball humor, goofy plotting, period-Megan Jimenez, Shannon M. O'Bryan, Denis Lambert, Amanda Paulson – White Christmasperfect costumes from the Eisenhower era, and lots of pretty scene changes. (Who says Broadway shows don’t have scenery anymore? This one packs a thousand glorious illusions passing as set pieces.) This blast from the past is a winter storm we can savor.

Strictly by-the-numbers and comfortably contrived, the plot involves Wallace and Davis, a vaudeville team looking for a new act, who join forces with Betty and Judy Haynes, a sisters duo, to help the guys’ former general draw crowds to his Vermont ski lodge and barn when the winter season is threatened by a total lack of snowfall. It’s serendipity on cue. Of course, all kinds of clever confusion arises over whether the boys will end up in Florida or rehearse their new Broadway show in New England, then whether that inn will be sold to a corporation and, of course, whether each sister will dutifully fall for the vaudeville hoofer of her choice.

It’s all an excuse for such Berlin gems as “Blue Skies” (performed with a bit too much jazzy syncopation for my taste), “I’m Happy,” “I Love a Piano,” “How Deep Is the Ocean?” and, of course, the inexhaustibly evocative title number. They’re a showcase for John Scherer and Denis Lambert as the happy hoofers who fall hard or soft for Amy Bodnar and Shannon M. O’Bryan as the sisters who sing “Sisters.” Everything you loved in the movie you can savor here in three dimensions.

     
Lambert, O'Bryan, Williamson, Peeples with Showgirls - Irving Berlin White Christmas Blue Skies from Irving Berlin White Christmas

Ruth Williamson, as the hard-boiled, Broadway brassy inn manager, combines Thelma Ritter and Alice Ghostley as she peps up every scene with deadpan wisecracks. Erick Devine is lovably crusty as General Waverley (even though the plot goes haywire near the end as he returns to the Army, then reenters retirement for reasons that aren’t worth a second thought). Eleven-year-old Mary Peeples is a perky moppet who was born to play Annie as well as the general’s Shirley Temple-cute granddaughter and will steal a show, if not a scene, if she’s not watched carefully.

The 17-member ensemble resemble so many perpetual-motion machines, singing and dancing their own beautiful blizzard in this Currier and Ives vision of Vermont. (The whole show is like a series of life-size Christmas cards singing enchanting melodies.) The lesser-known Berlin numbers may not be undeservedly neglected but the surefire hits from this totally American composer are absolutely irresistible. This Christmas confection can more than hold its own with A Christmas Carol  (our review ★★★½) and The Nutcracker (review ★★★★), just a few blocks away.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  
Bardner and O'Bryan - from Irving Berlin White Christmas 1944 Christmas Eve Show (2) Irving Berlin White Christmas
Let Me Sing and I'm Happy - Irving Berlin White Christmas Martha Watson and Gen Henry Waverly in snow - Irving Berlin White Christmas Devine as General Henry Waverly - Irving Berlin White Christmas
On the Train to Vermont - Irving Berlin White Christmas

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REVIEW: A Christmas Carl (Chicago dell’Arte)

  
  

A Lot of Predictable, a Little Perverse

  
  

A Christmas Carl - Poster

  
Chicago dell’Arte presents
  
A Christmas Carl
  
Created and Directed by Ned Record
at
The RBP Rorschach, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
through Dec 22  |  tickets: $15   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

What is it about formulaic Christmas stories that we return to again and again each holiday season? Does their familiarity comfort and reassure? Is there something in the ritual retelling of Christmas stories that really re-awakens warmth and goodwill? Chicago dell’Arte’s A Christmas Carl, now onstage at Right Brain Project Rorshach, comes across like a new flavored bag of Doritos—it’s still Doritos, but with a different coating than the Cool Ranch or Nacho Cheese varieties. Creator and director Ned Record revamps Charles Dickens’ tale with Tex-Mex flavor but with limited success. The real value of A Christmas Carl is not how closely it adheres to tradition, but in the dippy trips it takes into delightful perversity.

In fact, the production itself seems rather bored with same old Christmas story. Charlene Dickens (Joanna P. Lind) gets stranded in Cleburne, Texas, once her transmission goes out on her way to Nashville. She waits endlessly in Scrooge’s Auto Body Shop, where there are obviously more than a few screws loose. Bob Ratchet (Derek Jarvis) can hardly keep his attention on one line of conversation, let alone the engine block, and Juan (Christopher Thies-Lotito), feigning ignorance of the English language, is hardly decent help. Owner Carl Scrooge (Nick Freed) only paces back and forth from reception to garage, never getting his hands dirty himself and never needing to deliver a “bah, humbug” over giving his employees time off for Christmas day. His flat deadpan drawl more than indicates utter disinterest in holiday merriment or goodwill toward men.

If only the play didn’t lag as much as action in the garage. Charlene’s plans to turn Carl around, by the ritual introduction of the three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, go dreadfully slow and haltingly predictable. Leading Carl through his paces to Christmas redemption would be excruciating if not for the delightfully freakish presence of Fred (Aaron Kirby), the Goth boyfriend of Carl’s sister, Fran (Jessica Record), and a monomaniacal performance artist trained by none other than the ITT Technical Institute.

What saves A Christmas Carl from Christmas death is the triple-espresso shot of perversity in Kirby’s performance. In fact, Fred steals the show. He becomes the center to A Christmas Carl more than Carl, a terribly interesting wrinkle if this play is, indeed, a Christmas story wrought from the heart of Texas. Clearly, then, Cleburne is not exactly Sarah Palin country or, at least, it is not an America that Sarah Palin prefers to portray. Rather, it’s an America that belongs to the freaks. Even the couples’ exercises enacted by Bob and his wife Emily (Holly Portman) take a charmingly flaky detour from the main action and create a playful space in which only their childlike resolutions matter. That development alone has got to be tidings of comfort and joy to some out there.

Would that Record had taken even more chances with Dicken’s staid and over-familiar tale. The result may have been a wild, fresh and new seasonal classic to awaken audiences from the holiday doldrums.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
   

 

REVIEW: Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer

  
  

The Queer Meaning of Christmas: Always Be Yourself

  
  

Rudolph finale by David as Joan

  
Hell in a Handbag Productions presents
   
Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer
   
Book/Lyrics by David Cerda 
Music by
David Cerda w/ Scott Lamberty
Directed by
Derek Czaplewski
at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark (map)
through Jan 1  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Hell In a Handbag Productions have run their queerlicious holiday spoof, Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer for 13 years, yet it’s Christmas theme could not be more current or relevant than if it were written yesterday. Directed by Derek Czaplewski, this Santa Claus (Michael Hampton) is as Scrooge as they come, running the North Pole like a sweatshop. His terrorized elf population scrambles for job security since he’s outsourced most of the toy manufacturing to India. To generate extra income, Santa cynically develops a series of reality TV Mrs. Claus loses her balance. by David as Joanshows for NPN (North Pole Network). Sam the Snowman (Christopher Carpenter) lays out the whole scene with casual and realistic world-weariness, just right for this particular recessionary season.

Into this milieu, Jane (Danni Smith) and Tom Donner (Chad) give birth to Rudolph (Alex Grelle), a sweet little reindeer with an instinctual love for feminine attire. Fresh from the womb, Rudolph can already spot Chanel and Prada on other women and lusts in his heart to wear them himself. But mom and dad fear gender non-conformity just won’t go over well in the gossipy and economically strapped environs of Christmastown. So, they force Rudolph into overalls and trot him out to the reindeer games to put a little butch into his act.

The big butch of the reindeer games, Coach Comet (David Besky), uses his position to put the moves on his young reindeer charges. But, like any classic closet case, he – like everyone else – rejects Rudolph when his unstoppable femme side emerges. While reviling base hypocrisy is de rigueur element for LGBTQ comedy, Hell in a Handbag’s spry and professional cast keeps to the situation fresh, the jokes well-timed and humanely on message. David Cerda’s humorous script holds up fabulously well; it helps that the original Christmas cartoon is also about being yourself, no matter what societal pressures deny who and what you are. Cerda and crew boost the original cartoon with a ton of salacious queer fun and Brigitte Ditmars’ choreography makes the most of a tight stage at Mary’s Attic.

     
Trailer Trash Barbie by David as Joan Meet Coach Comet by David as Joan
The Dragbeast! The Abominable Dragbeast (David Cerda, center) massacre's a Lady Gag_0007 North Pole Smackdown by David as Joan

Rudolph loses the town’s support but gains a reindeer girlfriend, Clarice (Jennifer Shine), who regales the audience with how HOT his red hose make her. Then there’s Rudolph’s ally Herbie, the elf who wants to be a dentist, who Dan Hickey executes with nostalgic and dorky perfection. Once this pair make it to the Island of Misfit Toys, the audience not only gets to revel in Chad’s exact portrayal of Charlie-in-the-Box, but also the Half-Naked Cowboy (Chad Ramsey), Trailer Trash Barbie (Terry McCarthy) and the Choo-Choo Train (Barbara Figgins) with square wheels.

That Cerda, as the Abominable Drag Beast, tries her grab at fame in a Gaga-esque meat dress, while Ed Jones goes beyond the beyond as Santa’s drunken wife, puts the cherry and nuts on top of Hell in a Handbag’s confection. It’s so bad it’s good for you. But most of all, for all its celebration of pervy practices, Rudolph, the Red-Hosed Reindeer restores a little innocent sweetness to a holiday made hard, jaded and meaningless by rampant commercialism. Always be yourself—that’s the best Christmas message I’ve heard in a long time and something meant to last the whole year round.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Christmastown! by David as Joan

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