Review: Chicago One-Minute Play Festival (Victory Gardens)

  
  

OMPF - One Minute Play Festival - Victory Gardens - banner

 

New Festival Showcases Short Works by Local Artists, Sampler-style

 

by Dan Jakes and Oliver Sava

This May 15-16, Victory Gardens premiered Chicago’s first One-Minute Play Festival (OMPF), a benefit event that featured bite-sized works by an eclectic mix of prominent and upcoming local theater artists. Creator and “curator” Dominic D’Andrea originally debuted the series in New York in 2007, where it has since grown to San Francisco and Los Angeles . For its first ever stop in the Midwest, considering the event’s magnitude–50 playwrights, 10 directors, and nearly 60 actors–this year’s showcase demonstrated promising potential for an exciting annual Chicago theater institution.

That is, if it finds a stronger footing. Micro-plays are nothing new, especially in the Windy City, long-time home to the Neo-Futurists’ Too Much Light and Second City; one set the bar for two-minute plays, and the other made one-joke flash bits a sketch trademark. D’Andrea and producer Will Rogers’ OMPF also rides off the larger 10-minute play trend. Their efforts to boil down theater even further, though, prove to be fruitful–sometimes even enlightening. Below is a list of the night’s highlights.

Paper Airplane, Aaron Carter  

     
   The finest piece in the festival. A young boy expresses his anguish over his father’s looming death while tossing folded paper planes across the stage. His ability to speak is limited to the papers’ flight, leaving him choked and frustrated with each audible crash landing. In less than a minute, Carter encapsulates the panic of grief, and animates the cruel handicap children endure to express pain. Those planes approached visual poetry.

Two Vegans, Robert Tenges

     
   A couple engaged in love making–some of it hilariously acrobatic–get their kink on by dirty-talking their favorite (or to cool things off, least favorite: (“raw kale…raw kale!”) foods. At first, it’s funny nonsense. Then, after you uncomfortably internalize your own link between taste/sexual satisfaction, it’s hysterical.

A Play, Kristoffer Diaz

     
   You’re the hero in this monologue. The audience member to your right is the protagonist. Your left, the antagonist. Diaz’s simple, straight-forward instructions don’t feel like a gimmick. His inconclusive end ponders some sophisticated ideas about the broader implications of storytelling, ones that resonate long after the play’s 60 seconds are up.

The Last Walk, Lisa Dillman

     
   Sad pets are an easy go-to for emotional impact…but that doesn’t make using them any less effective. A dog reminisces about the good days with her very recently deceased owner. Confused, she brushes up against his dead body for affection…and if you don’t cry a little at the thought of that, then you’re a monster. Only a few high-pitched “aw’s” were heard in the house during an otherwise hushed fade-to-black.

Inequity, Jake Minton

     
   Penis envy comes early for two little boys (played by full-grown adults, of course) in a school bathroom: One stands proud, pants down and bare-butted at a urinal, while the other sits devastated, hiding his…well, you know. Minton makes a nice little joke about men’s biggest insecurity.

Haiku Fight, Caitlin Montanye Parrish

     
   A couple hashes out an argument by having a refereed 8 Mile-style slam, with Japanese poetry filling in for hip-hop. It’s a simple, wonderfully clever juxtaposition of the writing form’s serenity versus the needling aggravation of a relationship fight.

This Just In, Stephen Louis Grush

     
  Liberal sensibilities about prejudice get turned over on their heads when one easily dismissible stereotype gets paired with one that’s equally unfair, but–for many viewers–may hit a little closer to home. Those might sound like the makings for a didactic issues play. With the right amounts of humor and levity here, they aren’t.

Bag Thief, Laura Jacqmin

     
   A mix-up at an airport luggage carousel leads to suspicion and accusations. Jacqmin doesn’t quite know how to end her play–what she settles for lets the air out of its balloon and betrays her otherwise solid work. Up until the final seconds, though, it’s fun stuff watching two men calmly navigate each other’s logic and contemplate one another’s mind games.

Blackout, Chisa Hutchinson

      
   As the name suggests, Hutchinson’s play takes place with the house and stage lights off. Her monologue discusses nyctophobia (fear of darkness) in friendly, clinical terms. Once she starts in about the ghastly things you could be imagining, it’s hard not to nervously giggle and realize you’re an adult who’s once again–briefly–afraid of the dark.

In Not Our Finest Hour, Andrew Hinderaker

     
   You can spot a gag coming within the first few seconds of this context-free comedy. A line of actors take a swig from a water bottle and pass it on. Anticipation builds; titters slip. The fact that the punch line is exactly what you’d expect compounds the simple humor in this satisfying, straightforward piece.

Wisconsin, Andrew Hinderaker 

     
   Anyone who’s experienced the unique isolation of a rural Midwest winter can attest to the truth and melancholy spoken in this eloquent monologue. A young man describes a blackened hand rising out of the snow. Hinderaker’s vivid image is striking on conflicting levels–it’s unsettling, somber, and in its own way, serene.

Free, Zayd Dohrn

     
   A United States Marine quietly bemoans the chaos of modern war and rejects America’s authoritative façade. His speech is upsetting for all the obvious reasons, and for some less common: notably, the futility of humanitarian efforts and the false hope instilled by the military’s hierarchy.

A Short Story, Emily Schwartz 

     
   A narrator gives up on his own story, much to the protagonist’s chagrin. Schwartz’s non-story leaves the nameless hero waiting and frustrated as the nonchalant storyteller signs off on her would-be adventure. Smart, funny metatheater.

Love Play for Two Chairs, Seth Bockley 

     
   When you think about chairs having sex (though in any other context, why would you?) the word “whimsical” probably doesn’t come to mind. And yet, like an x-rated Fantasia, Bockley and director Jeffrey Stanton achieve just that. Annoyed by the noise of his enchanted furniture getting it on, an apartment owner sets out to end his two chairs’ tryst. His solution is delightfully absurd–the fact that it’s irresistibly adorable makes matters even stranger.

Unsolicited Advice for Next Year’s Fest

Now that the One-Minute Play Festival has taken its first entertaining, successful baby steps in Chicago, here’s what we at we’d would like to see from the show in its future incarnations…

A Greater Assortment of Styles:

Only a few plays in 2011 were noteworthy for really bucking traditional conventions. The message in Gloria Bond Clunie’s Falling about resilience in the face of natural disasters, for instance, wasn’t particularly moving or inspired, but her play stood out from its peers for its striking use of projections and puppetry. That left us with a question: How can the other works of 50 unique artists have looked so homogeneous? Talking animals, inner-monologues, contentless scenes and gripes about public transit bore the brunt of too many shows. No movement pieces? No one-minute musicals? Festival organizers take pride in the lack of dictated thematic guidelines for the playwrights (as they should). Still, there has to be a way to commission a more diverse body of work.

Super-titles:

Many of the short plays benefited from having the names of the shows known; some even took on new light. Dimmed houselights and tiny program font made seeing them impractical–unless you were really straining, you had to do without. An inexpensive or creative way to integrate the show names could further enrich the work.

Clear Intent Behind Curation:

Was there or was there not an intended arc to the evening? We couldn’t tell. Directors took on about 10 plays each, and their pieces were presented together in ten unique “clumps.” The order that clumps were presented in and the plays within them, though, did not have an obvious flow. Perhaps one wasn’t intended–regardless, having one might keep the night as a whole engaging.


The Chicago One-Minute Play Festival is produced as a benefit for Victory Gardens Fresh Squeezed, their alternative programming and audience engagement initiative. With a shared mission, both Fresh Squeezed and the festival aim to represent a wide and diverse range of playwrights, actors, and directors working in the great city of Chicago.

Reviewers: Dan Jakes and Oliver Sava

     
     

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Review: The First (and Last) Musical on Mars (New Rock)

     
     

Too messy, even for schlock

     
     

Gina Sparacino and Meghan Phillpp in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr.

  
New Rock Theater presents
   
   
The First (and Last) Musical on Mars
   
Written by George Zarr
Directed by Kevin Hanna
at New Rock Theater, 3933 N. Elston (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $10-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

I generally love schlock musical comedy. The emotions are elemental, the humor, raw, the plots, joyfully ridiculous. Yet, is it possible for schlock to be too schlock-y, even for schlock? Of course—and as Exhibit A, I present to you The First (and Last) Musical On Mars, onstage now at New Rock Theater. New Rock rocked Chicago twice with its utterly gnarly and awesome crowd-pleaser, Point Break Live! (our review Leah Isabel Tirado in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr.★★★). But it seems that they’ve taken this fledgling comedy review too early from its nest.

Written and composed by former Sirius Satellite Radio spoken word maven George Zarr and directed by Kevin Hanna (musical direction Robert Ollis), The First (and Last) Musical On Mars still looks like it doesn’t quite know what it wants to be when in grows up. Angel Tuidor’s costuming and Ellen Ranney’s set design suggest heavy influences from 1970’s David Bowie and Roxy Music. Indeed, the use of glitter is almost blinding. But Zarr’s musical compositions are a hodge-podge of pop and Broadway. In fact, hodge-podge is a nice way of putting it. The tune “Sweet Alien Boy” is overlaid on the chord structure of Jimi Hendrix’s “Foxy Lady,” but its execution just doesn’t rock. The first act finale, “Sibling Rivalry”, can’t be described as anything other than a messy attempt at pop-operetta.

As space opera, The First (and Last) Musical On Mars is just too jumbled and patched together to excite. Add awkward scene transitions and the show barely holds together. But it does have a few fun and tender moments. Rock star James (Sam Button-Harrison) is forcibly teleported to Mars for the coronation of twin princesses Hendrixia (Gina Sparacino) and Hollilia (Meghan Phillipp) and, ta-da, romantic entanglements ensue. It’s certainly fab to watch the girls zoom about in their ship to the song “Retro-Rocket Warp Speed.” Once James lands, a few tender, romantic moments stand out with the coy duet between him and Holliliah with “Different Beings, Different Worlds” and Button-Harrison’s warm reprise of “You Take Me to Paradise.” It must be noted that the entire cast’s voice quality is quite above standard for musical comedy review. Now, if they only had the material to match their talents.

     
Sam Button-Harrison in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr. Meghan Phillipp and Sam Button-Harrison in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr.

So far as comedy goes, Matthew Isler’s dry robot servant, Electrolux, stands out–and that’s mostly because he has great miniature signage that he flourishes most effectively. All the same, with the exception of brief one-liners like “Earth guys are easy!” the entire book badly needs a rewrite. Dallia Funkaster (Casey Kells) and Zabathoo (Leah Tirado) make decent evil villains, attempting to kill the princesses and take over Mars, but that has entirely to do with their level of enthusiasm and not the writing. Meanwhile, the Chorus (Rachel Bonaquisti, Liz Hanford, and Allison Toth) always comes across sweet and lovely, while Jonas Davidow has to be thanked just for wearing a g-string.

But it’s back to the drawing board for the creator. Or his venture into the heart of shlock will be, dare I say, lost in space.

  
  
Rating: ★½
   
  

Gina Sparacino, Meghan Phillpp, Sam Button-Harrison and Chorus Rachel Bonaquisti, Liz Hanford, and Allison Toth in New Rock Theater's "The First (and Last) Musical on Mars", by George Zarr.

The First (and Last) Musical on Mars continues through June 19th at New Rock Theater, 3933 N. Elston (map), with performances Fridays and Satrudays at 10pm and Sundays at 8pm.  Tickets are $15, and can be purchased by phone (773-639-5316) or online at http://www.newrocktheater.com/tickets.htm.

  
 

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Review: The Outgoing Tide (Northlight Theatre)

     
     

Northlight creates a compassionate, witty world premiere

     
     

John Mahoney (Gunner), Thomas J. Cox (Jack) and Rondi Reed (Peg)

  
Northlight Theatre presents
   
   
The Outgoing Tide
   
Written by Bruce Graham
Directed by BJ Jones
at North Shore Center the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $30-$50  |  more info 

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The shock of a loved one turning into a bewildered stranger—that’s the curse of Alzheimer’s Disease. Like the wrath of God, in this new work it’s visited on a small family living on the shore of the Chesapeake. But it could easily be any in the audience. That’s one reason The Outgoing Tide, an effective world premiere from Northlight Theatre, is as much a rehearsal for the future as theater can offer. The other is the utter honesty of BJ Jones casting and staging.

John Mahoney (Gunner) and Rondi Reed (Peg).Author Bruce Graham compassionately and wittily considers his play’s ongoing crisis—a father’s senility as a permanent impairment—from all sides. It’s wrenching to hear as confident an actor as John Mahoney, Chicago icon, suddenly descend into the depths of a terminal brain malfunction. His Gunner Concannon is a shanty-Irish success, a blue-collar trucker used to getting his way. But time is taking a daily toll: his tested but true wife Peg (down-to-earth Rondi Reed) faces “a new battle every day.” Gunner repeats himself, can’t remember basic information, recalls the past perfectly but forgets yesterday or who he’s with, and wanders away, helpless to return.

But, unlike Alzheimer patients in the later stages, Gunner can feel and taste his diminishing returns, enough to propose a terrifying idea to Peg and his son Jack (himself facing two other family crises, divorce and alienation from his teenage son). Like Willie Loman before him, Gunner will arrange an accident. The $2.4 million payout from this self-administered euthanasia will free himself from dependency and diapers in a hateful hospice, give Peg the comfortable future that that expense would have negated, and enable Gunner to open the restaurant he’s always dreamed of. But it has to be tomorrow because the future’s not on Gunner’s side: With winter approaching, a boat heading out will soon stand out.

Much of the play deals with the denial and panic triggered by Gunner’s decision to take his boat out and plunge himself into the “outgoing tide.” Peg despairs that, with Gunner gone, she’ll have no one to care for, though Jack (Thomas J. Cox, looking as bewildered as you’d expect) will need her even more now. Jack hates the thought that his dream depends on his dad’s death.

     
Rondi Reed (Peg) and John Mahoney (Gunner). Thomas J. Cox (Jack) and John Mahoney (Gunner).
Thomas J. Cox (Jack) and Rondi Reed Peg). John Mahoney (Gunner). Rondi Reed (Peg) and in the background Thomas J. Cox (Jack) in Northlight Theatre's "The Outgoing Tide" by Bruce Graham, directed by BJ Jones. Rondi Reed Peg) and Thomas J. Cox (Jack)

Clearly, this is no “On Golden Pond,” full of sentimental banter (“you old poop”) and analogies to lost loons. (It’s a lot more like Marsha Norman’s “’night, Mother,” where a suicide looms over, and finally finishes, the action.) There’s enough humor (what if a demented man, bent on murder-suicide, forgets to commit the second crime?) to leaven the loaf. The particulars of this beleaguered family are balanced against the universal plight that we’re all clocks fated to run down until we tick no longer. Flashbacks fill us in on a marriage that clearly grew from love into, well, whatever is left now.

Spry and game, Mahoney brings an energetic actor’s instincts to a part that doesn’t always need them. His sheer spryness somewhat blunts the seriousness of Gunner’s losing game, but it also makes his sudden losses of reality all the more wrenching. Reed exudes a feisty practicality that, alas, is useless in this family calamity. Cox depicts how cherished memories turn toxic when their source is no longer the person you grew up with.

Yes, The Outgoing Tide is definitely a promissory note for crises to come. See it now before the tide comes back.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Thomas J. Cox (Jack), John Mahoney (Gunner) and Rondi Reed (Peg).

Performances: through June 19th, with performances Tuesdays at 7:30pm, Wednesdays at 1pm and 7:30pm, Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2:30pm and 8:00pm, and Sundays 2:30 and 7:00pm. (some variations may occur – check website for exact performance info)  Tickets: Tickets are $40-$50, and can be purchased by phone (847-673-6300) or online at www.northlight.org. Location: All performances take place at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie (map).

     
     

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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: Alvin Ailey Dance – Revelations (Auditorium Theatre)

  
  

Annual visit visually majestic, exquisitely visionary

  
  

Alvin Ailey REVELATIONS, Move, Members, Move

  
Auditorium Theatre and Blackwell Global Consulting present
   
   
Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
   
at Auditorium Theatre, 50 E. Congress (map)
thru May 22  |  tickets: $30-$87  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

This show is a celebration!  Having first performed in Chicago in 1969, the Alvin Ailey dance company is commemorating its 140th performance on the Auditorium Theatre stage.  In addition, the annual visit by the New York based troupe marks the final season of Artistic Director Judith Jamison’s leadership. The Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University and Blackwell Global Consulting present Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.  The limited engagement will produce six Chicago premieres during the six performance and two student matinee run.  Although each show will have a different program schedule, Revelations will be the consistent finale.  Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater uses a spectacular combination of elegant and primitive body movement to narrate vivid folk tales.

Y. Lebrun, D. Hopins, K Boyd and R. Deshauteurs in "Annointed". (Photo: Paul Kolnik)

Anointed (2010, video), choreographed by Christopher L. Huggins, illustrates the leadership change at Alvin Ailey.  It’s a beautiful memoriam to founder Alvin Ailey, a stunning tribute to Judith Jamison and an exciting preface to Robert Battle.  Set to music by Moby and Sean Clements, the dancing starts as an intimate coupling.  Linda Celeste Sims and Jamar Roberts intertwine in fluid connectivity.  Dressed in simplistic black, they are mesmerizing in a poetic union.  Sims exits and Roberts has a masterful and athletic solo before his departure.  It’s an inspirational heartbreaker. Sims arrives back in fuchsia and the dance continues.  The music shifts to salsa-funk and the ensemble showcases innovative feats of energetic expression.  Roberts returns in white as divine intervention within the chorus.  The piece powerfully ends with Sims and Roberts in a reconnecting duet.  As the ensemble exits the stage, the last dancer turns around.  He joins Sims and Roberts to make the ultimate trifecta.  It’s a poignant demonstration to the timeless vision.  WOW!

After an intermission, The Evolution of a Secured Feminine (2007, video), choreographed by Camille A. Brown, features Rachael McLaren. The sassy McLaren exercises her inner masculine side. She confidently struts and gyrates in player style. It’s an intriguing manly exhibition that is partially performed without any sound. The illusion is enhanced with a stylish peak-a-boo suit and fedora by costume designer Carolyn Meckha Cherry. Next, The Hunt (2001, video), choreographed by the Incoming Artistic Director Robert Battle, is male bonding to music. Six male dancers are clad in long skirts. Their exposed torsos are eye-gawking sculpted art. The number is tribal and primitive with pounding drums and ritualistic gestures. The primal movements generate definite heated sensuality. Ooh-la-la!

Alvin Ailey Dancers perform "The Hunt", choreographed by Robert Battle (photo: Paul Kolnik)

The finale is introduced with a short film. “Revelations at 50,” produced and directed by Judy Kinberg, is a wonderful introspective of the Alvin Ailey’s 50+ year history. The founder dances and speaks with passionate conviction. It’s a perfect preface for the three phased finale: Revelations (1960, video) choreographed by Alvin Ailey. The sequence initiates with dancers dressed in natural tones for the Pilgrimage of Sorrow. The movement has an earthy groundedness that contrasts beautifully to the next section’s fluid whimsy. Take Me to the Water uses white costumes and blue silks to emphasize the spiritual cleansing. The dancing becomes joyful and uninhibited. The concluding segment, Move, Members, Move, brings the company together for a sensational culmination. The visual is a majestic pageantry of African American history rooted in its own unique, community spirit. A timeless classic devised by the founder, Revelations is an Alvin Ailey force

Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater is always an annual riveting spectacle. This year’s show feels particular momentous as the resigning Artistic Director Judith Jamison says farewell to Chicago. It’s a goodbye party that shouldn’t be missed.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Alvin Ailey’s Revelations continues through May 22nd, with performances May 19-20 at 7:30pm, May 21st at 2pm and 8pm, and May 22nd at 3pm.  Running times vary – see below the fold for exact timeframes.  Tickets are $30-$87, and can be purchased by phone (800-982-2787) or online here. For more information, go to the Alvin Ailey tour webpage.  Complete repertoires for each performance are also listed below the fold and on Alvin Ailey website.  See all Alvin Ailey dance videos here.

  

Alvin Ailey - The Company (Picture: Nan Melville)

  
  

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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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