Review: Hickorydickory (Chicago Dramatists)

  
  

Despite inconsistencies, provocative tale sets mind reeling

  
  

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

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

Reviewed Catey Sullivan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

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

  

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Review: Freedom, NY (Teatro Vista)

     
     

Subtle play offers powerful epiphanies of diversity and trust

     
     

(from left) Cheryl Lynn Bruce is Justice Mayflower, and Desmin Borges plays Gabriel, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s Freedom, NY.  (Photo: Eddie Torres)

  
Teatro Vista presents
   
  
Freedom, NY
  
  
Written by Jennifer Barclay
Directed by Joe Minoso
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 12  |  tickets: $20-25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

America is always struggling to change immigration into integration. But not all the battles are fought at frontiers. Far from any border patrols and electric fences, Freedom, NY depicts a less violent but more common interracial conflict. Presented with warmth and finally crowned in concord, Jennifer Barclay’s new play focuses on next-door neighbors, two black and one Latino. Here a psychological border, the kind we carry wherever we go, must be overcome before misunderstandings lead to worse.

(from left) Paige Collins is 12-year-old Portia, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce plays Portia’s grandmother and protector Justice Mayflower, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s "Freedom, NY." (Photo: Eddie Torres) The play’s divisions between neighbors—and members of minorities–are more mental than physical. On one side Mayflower, a flinty African-American justice of the peace, tends her marigolds and protectively isolates her 12-year-old granddaughter Portia against all adversity. A year ago, a school shooting and a child abduction persuaded Mayflower to cut Portia off from the outside world. (Apparently, Mayflower’s tough-love approach already frightened off her daughter, who fled to Nebraska.)

Symbolizing that outside world is newly arrived Gabriel, a recent immigrant who works as school janitor, hoping to save enough to bring his family from Mexico. Meanwhile, he brightly decorates his bare yard for the “Dia de Los Muertos,” where he will symbolically bury his mother. (She had dreamed of coming to Freedom but wasn’t able to make it alive.)

Telling Gabriel that the neighbors “don’t like how you look,” Mayflower puts up a fence between them as we wonder what it will take to get her to take it down.

The economically written, 80-minute drama depicts how Mayflower, less accepting than curious and pent-up Portia, overcomes her xenophobia and distrust of diversity. She finally realizes that Gabriel is not connected with child abductions or illegal burials. There are no world-shaking revelations here. What we see, honestly and persuasively, are just quiet efforts to preserve decency despite change. These shape the world more than elections or even revolution.

Minoso’s sensitive staging builds tiny epiphanies into moments of truth that cumulatively matter. Cheryl Lynn Bruce plays stubborn but well-intentioned Mayflower with tough tenacity and enough defensiveness to show she’s human beneath her fear. Desmin Borges’ Gabriel, almost too vibrantly colorful for the conditions, brims with open-hearted trust, even as his apostrophes to his dead mother question his stability. Most amazing is the awesomely natural performance of Paige Collins as questioning Portia. She represents America’s future, when we finally prove that, yes, Rodney King, we can all get along.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

(from left) Paige Collins is Portia, and Desmin Borges plays Gabriel, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s "Freedom, NY".  (Photo: Eddie Torres)

Teatro Vista’s Freedom, NY continues through June 12th at their new venue, Theater Wit (1229 W. Belmont),  with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm.  Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors), and can be purchased by phone (773-975-8150) or online at teatrovista.org. Freedom, NY runs approximately 75 minutes.      All photos by Eddie Torres.

  
  

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Review: Stage Kiss (Goodman Theatre)

     
     

Cheap laughs mark time in Ruhl’s surface-skimming romantic fantasy

     
     

HE (Mark L. Montgomery) and SHE (Jenny Bacon) get lost in one another’s embrace as they perform as Johnny Lowell and Ada Wilcox in One Last Kiss -- the play-within-the-play.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

  
Goodman Theatre presents
  
     
Stage Kiss
    
   
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Jessica Thebus
at Goodman’s Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $17-$69   |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Goodman Theatre and Sarah Ruhl have shared a fruitful relationship dating back to her 2006 The Clean House. Stage Kiss marks the MacArthur Fellowship winning playwright’s third production and first commission with the company, and with that, it may be time for Ruhl to reevaluate the details of that partnership. A two-year development process has yielded thin, runny results.

SHE’s daughter, Angela (Sarah Tolan-Mee), arrives at Laurie (Erica Elam)’s apartment to take her mother home.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)“What happens when lovers share a stage kiss…or actors share a real one?” Worthy question. Ruhl is a capable author to study it, too, having asserted her lyrical style and poignant insight into her characters’ romantic needs in previous, stronger works. This new play’s premise gets short shrift to accommodate Noises Off!-type metatheatrical slapstick silliness. If only Ruhl or director Jessica Thebus were more dedicated to exploring their substantial central theme, we’d be provided a better answer than ‘they fall down and go oomph.’

They also apparently seek refuge by escaping their own play, addressing the audience directly through occasional poetic spurts and barely integrated speeches. Stage Kiss’ most thoughtful moments are presented less as theater and more like essays. The nameless protagonist’s (Jenny Bacon) daughter (Sarah Tolan-Mee) ponders aloud why talented actors don’t seem to frown upon sleeping with talentless ones while, on the other hand, good painters seldom seem to sleep with bad painters. Elsewhere, a character articulates the difference between watching sex on film and sex on stage. Those interesting ideas are well phrased, but they come from Ruhl, not her characters. Action is totally halted during the speeches–just show us. Don’t tell.

     
Johnny Lowell (Mark L. Montgomery) meets Millicent (Erica Elam) in a scene from One Last Kiss.  (Photo: Liz Lauren) (l to r) Ada Wilcox (Jenny Bacon) and her Husband (Scott Jaeck) realize their daughter (Sarah Tolan-Mee) has run away with Johnny Lowell (Mark L. Montgomery) in a scene from One Last Kiss. (Photo: Liz Lauren)
(l to r) HE (Mark L. Montgomery), Laurie (Erica Elam), SHE (Jenny Bacon) and Harrison (Scott Jaeck) dance with one another to the tune of “Some Enchanted Evening.”  (Photo: Liz Lauren) (clockwise l to r) The cast of One Last Kiss (Jeffrey Carlson, Erica Elam, Sarah Tolan-Mee, Scott Jaeck, Jenny Bacon and Mark L. Montgomery) sits around the table as the director (Ross Lehman) speaks to them at first rehearsal.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Most of the two and half hours are instead spent satirizing the rehearsal process of a 1930’s Noël Coward-style play revival in which the married woman has been cast opposite her ex-lover (Mark L. Montgomery). The play-within-a-play jokes are decent enough, sometimes original and funny (“Why is everyone in this play named Millicent?”), but mostly easy and worn-thin. Ross Lehman is underplayed and hilarious as the production’s passive director, the all-too-familiar type that masks incompetence with friendliness. Pretending to be a bad actor is akin to pretending to be drunk; resisting temptations to exaggerate is probably for the best. The otherwise gifted Jeffrey Carlson does not and goes for broke as a gay, (potentially mentally disabled?) barely functioning bit-actor.

Decency doesn’t carry a show–once the novelty of the physical humor and accent-play wears off, there’s little else fleshed out to justify ludicrous character twists or the underdeveloped concept. Had Ruhl lived up to her potential and played to her strengths, she could have touched on some provocative ideas. Stage Kiss draws too thick of a line between romance and comedy for either to flourish.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

(center) Laurie (Erica Elam) confronts (l to r) HE (Mark L. Montgomery) and SHE (Jenny Bacon) as SHE’s daughter Angela (Sarah Tolan-Mee) and husband Harrison (Scott Jaeck) look on. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Stage Kiss runs approximately two hours, 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

     

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Review: Spring Awakening (Broadway in Chicago)

     
     

A teenage love lust story

     
     

The Cast of "Spring Awakening" national tour. ©2010 Andy Snow

   
Broadway in Chicago presents
   
Spring Awakening
   
Book/Lyrics by Steven Sater
Music by Duncan Sheik
Directed by Michael Mayer and Bill T.Jones
at
Ford Center for the Performing Arts, 24 W. Randolph (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $27-$90  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Judy Bloom books, Playboy magazines, Spice channel, the Internet – the availability of sex-Ed resources has significantly multiplied over the past 100+ years.  Before the sexual revolution, past generations lived in ignorant misery. Broadway in Chicago presents the 8-time Tony Award winning Spring Awakening a new musical in town for a one week engagement.  Based on the controversial play produced by Frank Wedekind, teenagers come of age in 19th century Germany.  Wendall wonders about procreation.  Moritz worries about wet dreams.  Melchoir questions the punitive educational system within an oppressed society.  Along with the other village kids, lustful thoughts arouse more questions without answers.  Fornication and masturbation without education is groping in the dark for satisfaction.  When the boys and girls venture into the unknown, it takes a village to crush the buds of change.  Spring Awakening is a beautiful lust story!

Coby Getzug as Mortiz in the national tour of "Spring Awakening". Photo credit: Andy Snow ©2010 In 1891, Playwright Frank Wedekind shocked the world with a controversial play about sex. Not only did it discuss puberty, it illustrated youth in situations of homoeroticism, statutory rape, sado-masochism, abortion and even a circle jerk. In 2006, these harsh unmentionables of a sleepy stoic village became the focal point of a musical folk tale. Again the world is stunned! But this time, it’s for the captivating innocence sung by these ancestral youth. With book and lyrics by Steven Sater and a score composed by Duncan Sheik, the story takes on a whimsical quality. Despite the repressed society and mature sex topics, purity blossoms with a childlike to teenage fervor. The naïve inexperience is a sweet and sad struggle to grow up.

A rock band sets the right tone for adolescent rebellion in “Don’t Do Sadness” and “Totally Fucked.” The upbeat tempo matches the rage of both Cody Getzug (Moritz) and Christopher Wood (Melchoir). Within his frenzy of confusion, Getzug adds plenty of humor in hairstyles and nocturnal emissions. Wood angrily leads an uprising for an evolution. Wood escalates a beating with disturbing exhilaration. Later, his tender foreplay charms the pantaloons right off of Elizabeth Judd (Wendla). Wood and Judd indulge in a gentle but animalistic response to unknown sensations. Their intimacy is poignant for its natural body rhythms. Judd enchants as a fresh-faced young girl with misguided notions. Judd engages with a soulful, dreamy performance. The entire ensemble delights with playful and heartbreaking simplicity.

     
Daniel Plimpton as Ernst and Devon Stone as Hanschen in the national tour of "Spring Awakening". Photo credit: Phil Martin Sarah Kleeman, Christopher Wood and Mark Poppleton in the national tour of "Spring Awakening". Photo credit: Andy Snow ©2010
Courtney Markowitz as Ilse in the national tour of "Spring Awakening". Photo credit: Andy Snow ©2010 Elizabeth Judd as Wendla and Christopher Wood as Melchior in the national tour of "Spring Awakening". Andy Snow ©2010 Elizabeth Judd as Wendla in the national tour of "Spring Awakening" Photo credit: Andy Snow ©2010

For this production, the audience extends onto the stage. These tickets are available for purchase. There are two sets of seats facing each other with the play’s action in-between. Ensemble members emerge from these seats to step into the action. The effect establishes the storytelling style and adds a personal touch. Spring Awakening stimulates as an old-fashion, age-of-innocence fascination.

SIDENOTE: For my own spring awakening, I saw this show the night after American Theatre Company’s The Original Grease. The similarities are obvious: sex and teenagers! The lingering impact is the evolution of thought from 19th century to 20th century. The 50+ years have empowered youth with knowledge of their bodies and authority. The exploration of both is handled with crude humor and little to no privacy. The 21st century musical investigating the Facebook 2.0 generation’s mating rituals will not shock or stun. It will traumatize!

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The cast of the national tour of "Spring Awakening". Photo credit: Andy Snow ©2010

Photos by Andy Snow and Phil Martin

Running Time:  Two hours and thirty minutes includes an intermission.    A 20th century man with some 21st century tendencies, Steve says simply, ‘Go See It!’

        
        

Review: Next to Normal (Broadway in Chicago)

     
     

A harshly relevant, yet gloriously hopeful masterpiece

     
     

The cast of 'Next to Normal' - Clockwise from top: Curt Hansen, Jeremy Kushnier, Preston Sadleir, Emma Hunton, Asa Somers, and Alice Ripley

  
Broadway in Chicago presents
  
Next to Normal
  
Book/Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Michael Greif
at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe (map)
through May 8  | 
tickets: $32 – $95  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Last year, the Pulitzer Prize board took a look at the short list from the subcommittee that makes recommendations on who should win the coveted award for drama. The board tossed the recommendations out, and instead bestowed the Pulitzer on Next to Normal, a show that the recommending body didn’t even rate as a semi-finalist. In some circles, the decision was viewed as an autocratic move illustrating the limitations of an unchecked board. Others applauded the decision, overjoyed that a musical about mental illness had catapulted the difficult topic into the national spotlight. Revisiting Next to Normal for the second time in as many years, we’re more certain than ever that the Pulitzer went to the right people.

Alice Ripley and Curt Hansen in 'Next to Normal'.On paper, the show sounds like the worst idea for a musical since “Springtime for Hitler”. Next to Normal has no dance numbers to speak of, no chorus line of cute chorines, no happy ending. It is about a woman who has shock treatments. It is also about a family that has been devastated by tragedy, perhaps beyond repair. It is about doctors who admit that nobody really knows how to cure mental illness and that finding an effective treatment for mood disorders is like locating a silver thread in a huge, cloudy swamp. It is about the futility of stumbling blindly through ad lib regimes of SRO inhibitors, benzodiazepines, lithium, Prozac, Cymbalta, Zoloft, Seroquel, and an endless alphabet soup of other chemistry-altering pills whose side effects range from dizziness to death. Clearly, we’re not in Shuffle-off-to-Buffalo territory here.

Yet in a country where, year after year, suicides outnumber homicides, Next to Normal is about as relevant, compelling and urgently necessary as theater gets. It also benefits from composer Tom Kitt’s gorgeous score, Brian Yorkey’s smart, insightful lyrics and direction by Michael Greif that grabs your heart within the first 10 seconds and doesn’t let go until long after the final curtain call. Next to Normal is not an easy show: It confronts you relentlessly with the despair, absurdity and in-curability of mood disorders. But it is also gloriously hopeful as it shines a compassionate spotlight on a topic about which there is far too much ignorance.

And make no mistake – that ignorance is rampant. Consider the language of suicide: We say “Diana killed herself,” as if the act were a choice, a decision uninfluenced by the very real illness of depression. When people die of cancer, the disease is blamed. When people die of depression, the victims are blamed.

So much for background on the societal necessity of this particular show. This is theater, so the real question isn’t about its social value. It’s about whether it is any good. The answer is yes. With significant caveat. The cast for the touring production is mostly as good as the Broadway ensemble, but the player who falls outside that “mostly” is crucial.

     
Curt Hansen (Gabe), Alice Ripley (Diana) and Asa Somers (Dan) in Broadway in Chicago's 'Next to Normal' Emma Hunton as Natalie in the national tour of 'Next to Normal'.
Asa Somers as Dan in Broadway in Chicago's 'Next to Normal'. Preston Sadleir as Henry in Broadway in Chicago's "Next to Normal" Curt Hansen as Gabe in Broadway in Chicago's "Next to Normal"

Next to Normal is anchored by Alice Ripley, who won the Tony for her performance as Diana Goodman on Broadway. But Ripley’s voice is not what it was on Broadway a year ago. Performing this vocally demanding score eight times a week has taken a toll. She struggles significantly with both pitch and with diction. Crucial lyrics are muddy, soaring top notes falter painfully. Pivotal numbers – I Miss the Mountains, You Don’t Know, Didn’t I See This Movie – don’t get the clarity the plot needs or the musicality the score contains.

Acting, Ripley remains superb, capturing the highs, lows and utter absurdities of mood disorders with an accuracy that is both deeply moving and blackly hilarious. But Next to Normal demands a great vocalist as well as a great actress. Opening night at the Bank of America (Shubert) Theatre, Ripley simply wasn’t consistent in the former capacity.

Alice Ripley as Diana in Broadway in Chicago's "Next to Normal"Still – perhaps paradoxically – Next to Normal remains a four star, must-see show. The supporting cast is pitch perfect. As Diana’s struggling 16-year-old daughter, Emma Hunton is heart-breaking in her vulnerability and defensive anger. With the short, bittersweet “Everything Else”, she delivers an ode to the crystalline order of Mozart’s music, with a poignant wistfulness that’s as sad as it is beautiful. As Diana’s son Gabe, Curt Hansen is thrilling, at once alluring and menacing and positively electrifying on the rock-infused “I’m Alive.” As Diana’s husband, Asa Somers’ Dan, delivers both the all-but unbearable frustration that results when a loved one’s struggle with mental illness seems never ending and years of treatment prove to be of dubious value. And as Diana’s psychiatrist, Jeremy Kushnier deftly portrays both the expertise and the impotence of a science that is more guess work than anything.

Next to Normal remains a magnificent musical. But with Ripley no longer in prime voice, it isn’t as magnificent as it might be.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

The cast of "Next to Normal", now playing at the Bank of America Theatre in downtown Chicago. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Photos by Joan Marcus.

     

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Review: Cirque Éloize iD (Broadway in Chicago)

     
     

Clunky transitions obscure visually-stunning finale

     
     

A stunt from Cirque Eloize's 'iD', at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre. Photo by Valerie Remise.

  
Cirque Éloize and Broadway in Chicago presents
  
Cirque Éloize iD
   
Created and directed by Jeannot Painchaud
at Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $20-$90   |  more info
(see below for 2-for-1 ticket offer)

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

Jugglers, acrobats, breakdancers: the circus has come to town… Canadian style. Cirque Éloize and Broadway in Chicago present Cirque Éloize iD, a performing troupe hailing from Montreal.  It’s not the three-ring circus with the big top, elephants, and clowns from childhood.  It’s more the grown-up, citified fantasy!  Instead of the mundane trudge to the office, the ordinary becomes extraordinary.  The workday daydream busts open with commuters spinning on their heads, plummeting from buildings and climbing the corporate ladder… of chairs.  Cirque Éloize iD combines death-defying feats with amazing technicolor projections for a downtown spectacle!     

A stunt from Cirque Eloize's 'iD', at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre. Photo by Valerie Remise.The experience starts as urgent lobby announcements broadcast a three minute warning and no late seating declaration.  In the theatre, the lights dim and the noise increases.  Sirens, drilling, traffic.  When the curtain lifts, coated pedestrians scurry to their imaginary jobs.  The backdrop is the city skyline being visually traced out by projections. The activity goes into slow mode. Two commuters’ eyes meet across the street.  They are meant to be together and so the magic starts.  The couple perform feats of astonishing physicality.  He balances her on one hand. Sounds easy?  Not quite?  He is standing with one arm extended overhead.  She is standing with one foot on top of his hand.  It’s a double decker thriller.  The show has multiple moments of gasp-worthy antics.  Various aerial stunts mesmerize for their danger and beauty.  A shirtless guy is pole dancing.  Not stripper-style but HOT just the same! Horizontally, he suspends from the pole with just one hand.  A woman pirouettes in a spinning hoop. At one point, she dangles upside-down with one foot.  Another guy uses two silk ribbons to fly!      

Not so much a three ring circus, the show is set in a rectangular space with a one act focal point.  Two of my favorite iD segments contained a bike and a trampoline.  The biker mystified as he clambered up the multi-level cityscape.  In the show-stopping finale, the marvelous visual projections share the spotlight with the performers.  An illusion is created with quick-flashing imagery as the cast jump on and off a trampoline.  The scenery adjusts.  The imagery changes.  The performers never stop.  It’s astounding athletic artistry.    

     
An act from Cirque Eloize's 'iD', at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre. Photo by Valerie Remise. An act from Cirque Eloize's 'iD', at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre. Photo by Valerie Remise.

For the novice on the cirque circuit, Cirque Éloize iD will blow your mind!  For the seasoned theatre thrill-seeker (TRACES, Hephaestus, Cirque du Soleil), Cirque Éloize iD may not be as satisfying. The sequence of circus acts is clunky.  There isn’t a strong storyline connecting the individual segments together.  AND, my biggest pet peeve, the performers stop the movement to mug for applause.  It breaks my supernatural experience when the humans require repeated adoration to continue.  I will applaud, and loudly, for the collective – not the individual.  It’s just how I do it!

If just for the outstanding visual finale, Cirque Éloize iD has twenty minutes of a must-see-to-believe extravaganza!

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

An act from Cirque Eloize's 'iD', at Chicago's Cadillac Palace Theatre. Photo by Valerie Remise.

2 Main Floor Seats for the Price of One*!  When ordering, use code INDIVIDUAL

*Valid on April 26-April 30th performances for Orchestra, Dress Circle and Loge seats Offer ends April 29at 11:59pm.  Not valid with any other offer or on previously purchased tickets.  Subject to availability. Normal ticketing fees apply. Other restrictions may apply.


Cirque Éloize iD continues through May 8th at the Cadillac Palace Theatre, 151 W. Randolph (map), with performances April 30th and May 7th at 2pm and 8pm, May 6th at 7:30pm, and May 1st and 8th at 1pm. Running Time:  Two hours includes a twenty-minute intermission. Tickets are $20-$90, and can be purchased online. More information at Broadway in Chicago or cirque-eloize.com.   (Photos by Valerie Remise)

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Reivew: Ribbon Around a Bomb (Prologue Theatre)

     
    

New musical needs to choose an audience

     
     

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.

 

Prologue Theatre Company presents

 

Ribbon Around a Bomb

 

Books and Music by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee
Directed by Kiana Harris
at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark (map)
through May 3   |  tickets: $15   |  more info 

Reviewed by Jason Rost

It’s a little unbelievable and absurd to think that in 2011 any collegiate art department would exclude all female painters from a list of 45 great historical artists. Even in my own five minute research (ala Google) I could not find a single list that left out the likes of Frida Kahlo and Georgia O’Keefe. That said, it’s certainly a heavily one-sided battle of sexes in the art history world. This is at least part of what the new identity-stricken musical, Ribbon Around a Bomb by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee, which recently premiered with Prologue Theatre Company, focuses on. At one point a professor (Melody Latham) hands the audience a thesis list of historical painters, who are all men. It was not only a contrived theatrical convention, but also made me feel a little odd sitting in the cabaret bar setting of Mary’s Attic watching what, as far as I could tell, was a children’s musical. When Chamblee implements the “adult” sections though, it feels even more awkward.

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.The story follows a painter, Kalakara, through three phases of her life. The younger Kalakara (played with perfect wonderment and rebellion by Krysten Williams) is “haunted” by three female painters from history (Angela Alise Johnson, Melody Latham and Kathleen Wrinn). She is an aspiring painting prodigy (although we never get an actual glimpse of her artwork) whose father (Christopher Tucker) disapproves of her career choice. The ghosts are there, at first, to help guide and inspire her. The college student Kalakara (Charlitha Charleston) is traumatized by these experiences and is also dealing with her rebellion against men, particular the one man in love with her, James (a vocally challenged Lance Newton). Finally, there is the older Kalakara (Tinuade Oyelowo) who paints from her mental institution.

It is within the stories of the older Kalakaras, and their mutual haunting of each other, where the script gets muddled, pointlessly depressing and dramatically trite. Chamblee seems to suggest that the only true way to become a great artist, if you’re a female, is to embrace insanity and reject family, happiness and men. It projects a skewed feminist message.

Chamblee clearly has a knack for infectious musical numbers. However, the musical style in this play lacks unity and instead stretches to showcase a hodgepodge of numerous styles that don’t usually mesh. In addition, there is most certainly an overabundance of belting. Chamblee is clearly influenced by several contemporary composers of the musical world including Sondheim, Schwartz and Jason Robert Brown. The trick is to serve the story first and this story lends itself to more intimate and simple music than is currently written.

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.The cast is just about as split as Chamblee’s script. While there is some wonderful talent (most notably the impressive vocals of Charleston and Wrinn), there are also several uneven performances in director Kiana Harris’ cast. Harris’ direction serves the first half of this musical well with a decidedly presentational staging. It helps communicate the educational values and emotional relationships clearly, however it is far more suited for a middle-school audience rather than a bar full of adults. For the most part it seems that Chamblee’s script cofuses Harris’ concept – and understandably so: Chamblee’s book and music combat each other caught between a fun historical educational children’s musical revolving around themes of gender equality, and a tediously confounded psychological adult drama. For example, although Tamara de Lempicka was a mid-twentieth century Polish painter, she is instead portrayed and costumed as though she’s a 2011 “Real Housewife of the Netherworld.” This causes a confusing disconnect between her and the other ghosts who are costumed and portrayed in a more period style.

I’d say that Chamblee needs to choose one storyline, and one play to tell, however I’d strongly encourage fleshing out the tale of the young girl painter inspired by historical women who have defied sexism in the art world. She can simply drop the schizophrenia, f-bombs and stripper number that add nothing but a lack of clarity. Allow these women of the past to empower the girl rather than mentally damage her for life. In this sense she should also choose her audience, and if that happens to be a room full of 6th grade girls, then so be it. Finding strength in the past is a lovely message, and the music during these segments is the strongest. It could be cut to 45 minutes and shipped out on a children’s theatre tour. While it is clear Chamblee has greater personal musical ambitions and another deeper story to tell with bold orchestrations, Ribbon Around a Bomb may be better off simple. She can save the center stage belts and diva numbers for the next go-around of musical scribing.

   
  
Rating: ★★
     
  

A scene from Prologue Theatre's world-premier musical "Ribbon Around a Bomb" by Jess Eisenberg Chamblee. Photo by Cole Simon.

Ribbon Around a Bomb, Prologue Theatre Company’s world-premiere musical continues thru May 3rd. The play runs 1 hour and 50 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $15. For more information visit www.prologuetheatreco.org

Photos by Cole Simon 

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