Review: Sleuth (Theatre at the Center)

     
     

A delightfully cunning mystery in Munster

     
     

SLEUTH Lance Baker playing game & Larry Yando

   
Theatre at the Center presents
   
Sleuth
     
Written by Anthony Shaffer
Directed by
William Pullinsi
at Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster (map)
thru March 20  | 
tickets: $36-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Let the games begin. They’re rarely more intriguing and diabolically delicious than they are as played in Anthony Shaffer’s cork-screw twisting crime caper Sleuth. The suspensor has the intelligence of an international chess match and the tension of a frayed high wire poised to snap under the weight of a two-man aerial team, sending those who would traverse plummeting it to their deaths. With director William Pullinsi helming the master-class cast of Larry Yando and Lance S. Baker, Theatre at the Lance Baker as clown breaking in - a scene from Theatre at the Center's 'Sleuth'.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.Center‘s production of Sleuth is a first-rate cut-throat thriller.

Actually, forget the corkscrews. This is a murder mystery with more twists than a switchback trail up a Finlandian Matterhorn. Sleuth isn’t merely a whodunit; it’s also a who-has-been-done, meaning that you’re never quite certain which of several apparent victims has been slain until the final curtain. Is it the Nordic mistress, strangled with the silk stocking? The cuckolding travel agent, executed with the revolver? Shaffer builds illusion upon reality until the two mirror each other in a whacked-out, fun-house reflection, toying with the audience much as the story’s dueling gamesmen toy with each other.

And oh, such gamesmen are at play in Munster. Larry Yando plays Andrew Wyke, a mystery writer whose disdain for the plodding numbskull police is inversely proportional to his love of a good, old-fashioned match of wits. Watch him as he sits contemplating his chess board: The man’s eyes veritably gleam. Listen as he reads a passage from his latest detective novel: This is a fellow enraptured with both the sound of his own voice and the romance of role-playing, a man who is never so happy as he is when he’s putting on a charade.

Lance Baker plays Milo Tindle, a rather condescending travel agent who has been called to Andrew’s aptly Gothic old mansion (an elaborately spooky two-storey set by Rick and Jackie Penrod) for reasons that become clear only gradually. It wouldn’t do to reveal much more about the connection between Andrew and Milo, so suffice to say, the snare that binds them creates an elaborate labyrinth of a live-action brain-teaser. And every time you think you have it all figured out? You haven’t.

Baker and Yando are at the top of their craft; watching them turn and turn back the tables on each other is sheer delight. Milo has quite a journey, going from contained, arch smugness to quivering desperation to scary, dead-eyed psycho to gloating triumph, and Baker carries it off with dizzying grace. Yando cackles like a gleefully demented child as he manipulates his quarry, moving around the stage like a spider hopped up on amphetamines. When predator becomes prey, Yando morphs from elegantly controlled, slightly sadistic alpha male to clawing underdog, wild-eyed with fear and yet somehow also secretly joyous because he’s finally met a worthy opponent.

     
SLEUTH Lance Baker, Jack & Larry Yando, Theatre at the Center Munster SLEUTH Larry Yando with gun & Lance Baker in clown

Director Pullinsi keeps the pace crackling along like a brushfire. In between its trio of Big Reveals, Sleuth is an inherently talky play. Its rich, almost Stoppardian dialogue doubles back on itself as schemes, counter-schemes, crosses and double-crosses volley across the stage. Yando and Baker parry with the ease of fencers, making the intricate wording sound as spontaneous as an unexpected gunshot.

Our one criticism of the production is that Pullinsi downplays the narrative’s essential homosexual subtext (and regular text, for that matter) substantially. That means the end-game lines about diminished manhood and blackmail don’t make quite the sense they should. Still, Pullinsi has constructed a house of games that’s totally worth the drive to Munster.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

SLEUTH Larry Yando & Lance Baker - smoking jacketSleuth continues at Theatre at the Center, 1040 Ridge Road, Munster, Indiana, running February 17 through March 20. To purchase individual or group tickets call the Box Office at 219.836.3255 or Tickets.com at800.511.1552.  For more information on Theater at the Center, visit www.TheatreatTheCenter.com.  All photo by Michael Brosilow.

     
     

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REVIEW: Funk It Up About Nothin’ (Chicago Shakespeare)

     
     

Holla Q Bros – ‘Funk it Up’ is da bomb!

     
     

Funk it Up Cast (left to right) - DJ Adrienne Sanchez, Jillian Burfete, GQ, Ericka Ratcliff, Postell Pringle, JQ and Jackson Doran. Photo by John W. Sisson Jr.

  
Chicago Shakes and Merrigong Theatre Company presents
  
Funk It Up About Nothin’
   
Adapted and Directed by JQ and GQ
at
Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand (map)
thru Feb 13  | 
tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

One of our great regrets of 2008 was missing Funk It Up About Nothin’, a “hip-hoptation” of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing by a pair of brothers who go by JQ and GQ. It you did likewise, we urge you to run, not walk, to get a ticket to this raptastic take on Shakespeare’s equally brilliant comedy.

The Q Brothers, GQ (top) and JQ (bottom), co-creators and directors of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's 'Funk It Up about Nothin' at Navy Pier. Photo by Bill Burlingham.Fear not if you’re someone who leans more toward classic rock than the frenzied spin of contemporary scratch ‘n burn djs or the rapid-fire beats of rappers. You definitely do not need to be a hip-hop hipster to appreciate the whipsmart wordplay and percussive joys of Funk It Up. Were Shakespeare alive, dare we say, he would surely love what the Qs have done with “Much Ado”.

The key to the piece’s success is this: The Q Brothers are all about the text. As both directors and adaptors of the piece, they demonstrate a deep understanding of it, and from that well of knowledge, they create an adaptation wherein the words bounce, ricochet, rocket, rattle and hum with all the smarts, heart and – most importantly – the wicked humor of the original. Funk It Up is an hour-long word party that remains true to its source in terms of plot, characters and tone.

The cast, all of whom play multiple roles, spits out the verbiage like master poet slammers. As MC Lady B (Beatrice), Ericka Ratcliff is all sass and strut, a ferocious wit packaged in latex, fishnets and bling, deploying more brains of a Mensa member and more crackling sex appeal than a studio full of gyrating video vixens. As Benedick, JQ swaggers like a peacock, loving the single life and bragging about the ladies with a preening vanity that doesn’t quite conceal the one-woman heart that lies beneath his rep.

One of the (many) joys of Funk It Up is the attention paid to the supporting characters. Sure they’re broad, but they are also as well-defined as the leads – right down to the bumptious groundlings.

     
MC Lady B (Ericka Ratcliff) proclaims her love for Benedick (JQ) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Funk It Up About Nothin'.  Photo by John W. Sisson, Jr. Hero (Jillian Burfete) learns how to be a diva from MC Lady B (Ericka Ratcliff), in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Funk It Up About Nothin' at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Photo by John W. Sisson Jr.

As Lady B’s cousin Hero, Jillian Burfete makes the ingénue amusingly simple. Hero is one of Shakespeare’s flatter characters – she’s pretty, and innocent and that’s about it. Burfete uses that one-dimensionality to wonderful comic advantage, making Hero a dim but enthusiastic princess whose head is full of unicorns and rainbows and whose brow furrows with effort whenever she’s called on to understand anything involving more than, oh, two syllables.

GQ is a hoot as the bastard brother Don John, whose clarion call to funk up Hero’s wedding is absolutely infectious. He’s also a terrific Sheriff Dingleberry, “part pimp, part police”, and part “Shaft” homage. As Claudio, Jackson Doran gives the feckless youth the demeanor of an earnest frat boy. And Postell Pringle is utterly riotous as the prince Don Pedro and as Dingleberry’s flamingly flamboyant lieutenant.

In all, Funk It Up is electric, an hour-long onslaught that combines the best parts of a grooving concert, a rip-roaring good story and a night bopping at the clubs. And as the dj who provides the electronic foundation of all the cunning linguistic gymnastics, Adrienne Sanchez brings the noise and the funk, ensuring that the beat goes on throughout the merry war of words.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

 

 

Scene from 'Funk It Up' - Borachio (JQ, left) and Don John (GQ, right) lure Claudio (Jackson Doran). Photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.

All photos by John W. Sisson Jr.

 

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REVIEW: In Darfur (Timeline Theatre)

     
     

Timeline illuminates compassion, courage amidst human atrocities

     
     

Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, left) is reluctant to share the story of what has happened to her with New York Times reporter Maryka (Kelli Simpkins, right) in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling.

  
Timeline Theatre presents
   
In Darfur
  
Written by Winter Miller
Directed by
Nick Bowling
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
thru March 20  |  tickets: $28-$38  |  more info

By Catey Sullivan

The peril of collecting firewood in Darfur – an everyday necessity almost as basic as food and water – sums up the horror of a blood-soaked country. Mothers have to choose which of her children to send to collect kindling, notes the humanitarian aid worker in Winter Miller’s drama In Darfur. That choice is one no parent should ever be forced to make.

“If they send their son, he gets killed,” the aid worker explains, “f they send their daughter, she gets raped. So they send their daughters.”

Maryka (Kelli Simpkins, right) tries to persuade Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, left) to share the story of what has happened to her in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch.Such heartbreaking decisions are tragically common within the borders of Sudan’s Darfur region, a swath of land about the size of France in northeastern Africa. Statistics are fuzzy, but it’s generally recognized that since 2003, at least 400,000 Darfuris have been killed and over 2 million displaced at the hands of the government-sponsored Janjaweed militia. The number of rapes resulting from the crisis are essentially impossible to count, in part because rape is used as a systemic tool of war and because the shame of the crime is so great (survivors can be later charged with adultery and flogged) that it is likely grossly underreported.

With Timeline Theatre‘s production of In Darfur, director Nick Bowling succeeds in putting human faces to the staggering atrocities. His cast is strong, almost strong enough to overcome the considerable limitations to Mille’s script. Leading the small, tightly woven ensemble: Mildred Marie Langford as Hawa, an English teacher who survives both the murder of her entire family and multiple gang rapes. A deceptively soft-spoken powerhouse, Langford gets a well-deserved showcase with In Darfur. She manages a bravura turn.

The piece is also a near-perfectly realized merger of video footage and traditionally performed drama. Mike Tutaj’s projections succeed in virtually putting the audience smack in the center of the action. The opening scene – a harrowing ride over a rough and roadless terrain amid a hailstorm of bullets – is perhaps the most effective use of video we’ve seen on a stage. Tutaj’s work makes the heat, the dust, the danger and the casualties of war (in one scene, Hawa buries her husband and child in shallow, sandy graves) palpable.

In all, the artistry of both the cast and Tutaj’s projections go a long way toward minimizing the shortcomings inherent to Miller’s drama.

Miller wrote the play after working as a researcher for the New York Times in Darfur. There’s no question but what she saw the atrocities of war first hand while in the region. On her website, Miller recalls walking through villages burned to the ground and turned into ghost towns, speaking with child rape victims less than 48 hours after their assaults, and watching a 20-year-old die after being gunned down over a matter of $200.

     
Mildred Marie Langford as Hawa - In Darfur at Timeline Kelli Simpkins as Maryka - In Darfur, Timeline Theatre

In Darfur centers on three lives that become intertwined during the violence – Maryka, a New York Times reporter (Kelli Simpkins), Carlos, a doctor (Gregory Isaac) and Hawa, a Sudanese English teacher (Langford). The script falters in that Maryka and Carlos are only character types as opposed to fully-formed characters. They seem to exist to present a point of view more than an authentic segment of the narrative. Moreover, some of the dialogue between the reporter and her editor (Tyla Abercrumbie) has the ring of a spoof of The Front Page. And although the dialogue implies conflicts between Maryka and her editor that go beyond whether Darfur is a front page story, they are never even partially delved.

Also problematic: Miller’s structure of having the actors speak in the language of the region, simultaneously translated into English – a kind of living form of subtitles – by other actors standing just off stage. It’s fascinating to hear the words as they would be uttered in Darfur, but the ongoing interpretations add a layer of distance to a narrative that demands intimacy.

Yet for all its drawbacks, In Darfur is compelling. Simpkins brings dark humor, an aggressive edge and a reservoir of compassion to the reporter’s role. As Carlos, Gregory Isaac captures the mix of burned out fatalism and stubborn idealism that come of doing good under hellish circumstances. And Langford brings both a gentleness and a steely, survivor’s resolve to a role that is both physically and emotionally demanding.

A final note: It’s always worth arriving at a TimeLine production early; the company invariably elevates dramaturgy to a level of storytelling on par with the production itself. Dramaturg Maren Robinson’s work for In Darfur is no exception. The lobby is also hosting “Darfur, Darfur,” an astonishing collection of photos from the region. The images are indelibly vivid, provide a rich context for the story on stage and should not be missed.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

Carlos (Gregory Isaac, left) is a doctor with an aid organization in Darfur who tries to help Hawa (Mildred Marie Langford, right) in TimeLine Theatre’s Chicago premiere of IN DARFUR by Winter Miller, directed by Nick Bowling. Photo by Lara Goetsch

     
     

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REVIEW: The Beauty Queen of Leenane (Shattered Globe)

     
     

Shattered Globe is back, better than ever

     
     

Linda Reiter (Mag) and Eileen Niccolai (Maureen) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  Photo Credit: Kevin Viol

      
Shattered Globe Theatre presents
   
The Beauty Queen of Leenane
  
Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by
Steve Scott
at the
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
through Feb 27  | 
tickets: $25 – $32  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

In The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Martin McDonagh has crafted one of drama’s greatest monster mothers, a matriarch of such suffocating dominance and staggering selfishness that she almost makes Medea look like June Cleaver. At least Medea had decency to put her children out of their misery at a fairly young age. Mag Folan, by contrast, seems to live solely to make her grown daughter Maureen’s life as close to hell on earth as one can get. It’s no wonder things get blisteringly, destructively hot in the Folan kitchen by the shocking finale of McDonagh’s tragic-comedy.

With a pair of intensely complex roles for women whose ingénue days are well behind them, The Beauty Queen of Leenane is an excellent vehicle to usher in the rebirth of Shattered Globe to the Chicago theater scene. One of the most dismaying arts stories of 2010 came with the announcement that the off-Loop powerhouse was disbanding. The dissolution surely wasn’t for lack of talent – with shows including Requiem for a Heavyweight (our review ★★★★) and Suddenly Last Summer (review ★★★★) and Days of Wine and Roses, the company consistently delivered dramatic riches.

Joseph Wiens (Pato) and Eileen Niccolai (Maureen) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane. Photo Credit: Kevin ViolMany of Shattered Globe’s best productions were anchored by the team of Linda Reiter and Eileen Niccolai, whose reunion as (respectively) mother Mag and daughter Maureen is reason for a bit of post-holiday rejoicing.

As stories of survival and sanity go, Beauty Queen’s a corker. And just when you think McDonagh has shown the plot’s full hand, the tale takes a twist that’ll stand the hair on the back of your neck on end. In those final moments, key events are called into tantalizing question, and the foundation of what you thought to be true turns out to be no firmer than shifting quicksand.

Equally disconcerting is the sudden, scary revelation McDonagh implies about the stranglehold the twin hands of fate and genetics can have on society’s most economically and emotionally vulnerable. The rich and the strong may have the means to escape heredity and circumstance. The poor and the fragile get crushed by them.

Director Steve Scott keeps a nicely controlled rein on the storytelling here: Less is infinitely more as Niccolai’s Maureen simmers in a slow but inexorable burn toward an explosion of rage. Under the ruthlessly demanding edicts of her mother, Maureen moves with precise control but has the wild-eyed, feral look of a fox desperate enough to chew off its own leg to escape the trap it is entangled in. As Mag, Reiter scrunches her face into a permanent gargoyle grimace, making the character both monstrous and pathetic – and making Maureen’s plight all the more untenable. Something has to give between mother and daughter before the last scene, and so it does, with all the violence and horror one expects from a McDonagh play.

     
Joseph Wiens (Pato) and Linda Reiter (Mag) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  Photo Credit: Kevin Viol. Linda Reiter (Mag) and Eileen Niccolai (Maureen) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane.  Photo Credit: Kevin Viol

Of course, Beauty Queen wouldn’t be nearly as powerful if it was a relentless grimfest. There’s more than a little humor threaded through McDonagh’s text – although humor of the dangling gallows variety to be sure. The cast is mostly up to the demands of the script, from its bleakly absurdist lighter moments to the irrevocable tragedy of its darker ones.

As Pato, the loving young man who represents Maureen’s only chance of escape, Joseph Wiens provides the narrative’s tender moments, portraying just the sort of gentle, understated and stout-hearted hero one suspects could heal Maureen’s deepest wounds. As Pato’s brother, Kevin Viol was a bit too tightly wound at the production’s final preview. Hopefully, his exaggerated jitteriness will lessen as the run continues.

Here’s hoping that run is long and prosperous for Shattered Globe, and that many more SG seasons are in store.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Kevin Viol (Ray) and  Eileen Niccolai (Maureen) star in Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Martin McDonagh’s The Beauty Queen of Leenane running through February 27, 2011, at the Athenaeum Theatre, Studio 2, 2936 N. Southport in Chicago. Photo Credit: Roger Smart

     
     

Review: Home (Court Theatre)

       
    

Resonant and timely, yet still flawed

     
     

Kamal Angelo Bolden, Ashley Honore, and Tracey N Bonner in Home at Court Theatre

   
Court Theatre presents
   
Home
   
Written by Samm-Art Williams
Directed by
Ron OJ Parson
at
Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through Dec 12  | 
tickets: $30-$60  |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

Three decades pass within the trajectory of Home, Samm-Art Williams three-character saga of a swath of American history viewed through the lens of an African-American man. The odyssey of Cephus Miles, from naïve, idealistic farm boy to destitute, drugged-out urbanite to prodigal son returned to the land is both uniquely specific and undeniably universal. It doesn’t matter what your race is: The struggle to put down roots can lead to the hellish instability of rocky soil long before a redemptive, fertile ground is found.

Final scene from HOME - Court Theatre - Kamal Angelo Bolden and Ashley HonoreThe piece is flawed, to be sure. Cephus (Kamal Angelo Bolden) seems to be no deeper than his outward actions – a character comprised of action but with little internal nuance. And by playing multiple roles as Cephus’ Job-like travels unfurl, Woman I (Ashley Honore) and Woman 2 (Tracey N. Bonner) provide character sketches that are more amusing than deep. Finally, the happily-ever-after ending that ensues after Cephus’ woeful odyssey of heartbreak, prison, and homelessness seems a bit pat. Williams dispenses with a wealth of endlessly complex societal woes – poverty, racism, and drug addiction among them – with a few deft swipes of the pen.

Wiliams’ text is musical, a rhythmic, lyrical pastiche of scenes that play like movements in a verbal sonata with words that literally sing at times. Hymns, spirituals, chants to make the toil of laboring in the tobacco fields endurable are interspersed through more traditional scenes of storytelling.

The yarns Cephus’ spins recalling his boyhood in Crossroads, North Carolina, are among the plays highlights: Working for the local moonshiner in a backwoods still where the occasional possum fell into the vat and made the brew all the more pungent; ditching church to play craps on Sunday out in the graveyard, escapades with colorful local characters – in the telling of these memories, Home shines brightest.

Cephus’ true love Patti May (Ashley Honore) figures predominantly in the story, with requisite rolls in the hayloft and vivid depictions of the explosive, pent-up sexuality of adolescence. But while there’s no questioning the sweet eroticism that exists between the couple, Patti May herself is all pleasant superficiality rather than uniquely layered character. She’s pretty, but that’s about it – Williams’ text provides little depth to the woman. When she makes a rather predictable final-act re-entry into Cephus’ life, her motivations for doing so seem more like a dramatic convenience (it wouldn’t do to leave poor Cephus stuck in a miserable, unhappy ending) than a genuine turn of events.

Ashley Honore and Kamal Angelo Bolden - Court Theatre Ashley Honore, Kamal Angelo Bolden, and Tracey N. Bonner - Home - Court Theatre
Ashley Honore, Kamal Angelo Bolden, and Tracey N. Bonner at Court Theatre - Home Kamal Angelo Bolden in winter scene in Samm-Art Williams Home - Court Theatre

Tracey N. Bonner has better luck playing multiple characters of marvelously funny and idiosyncratic quirks. As a coke-sniffing, loose-living big-city harlot, she’s a hoot, swanning about in a Scarlett-woman red feather boa like some kind of post-modern Jezebel. She’s equally memorable playing a snootily righteous welfare office caseworker who denigrates a homeless Cephus for being an embarrassment to his race.

This production is Ron OJ Parson’s third time at the helm of Home, having directed the piece for the Madison Repertory Company and New York’s Signature Theatre. He keeps the pace brisk, shaping scenes that are sometimes almost like small choreopoems. The opening scene is particularly effective as the two women hoe under a blazing sun, giving a harsh cadence to words so descriptively you can all but feel the sweat from relentless heat and ache from the back-breaking labor.
But while many of the individual scenes in Home resonate with powerful immediacy, the story as a whole just isn’t as effective – primarily because of that fairy tale, happily-ever-after ending. Williams brings plenty of relevancy to the stage: Cephus’ imprisonment after refusing to fight in Viet Nam is an issue that rings loud and clear as the war in Iraq plods bloodily on. His battles with heroin, homelessness and lost love are also vividly immediate. Unfortunately, his rapid redemption – financially, emotionally and geographically – are not. And his constant refrain throughout – that God is “on vacation in Miami” adds a jarring note to otherwise melodious dialogue.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
  

     
     

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REVIEW: Kid Sister (Profiles Theatre)

   
   

Loud and Louder

   
  

Kid Sister - Profiles Theatre Chicago

   
   
Profiles Theatre presents
   
Kid Sister
   
Written by Will Kern
Directed by
Joe Jahraus
at
Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $30-$35  |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

Holy mother of swamp rat excrescence!  I suppose there are more repetitive, unimaginative and utterly pointless plays out there than Kid Sister, but none come to mind. If we didn’t have 15 years of solid Profiles productions still in memory, their latest would be enough to make us swear off the Broadway Avenue black box. Because taking in Will Kern’s drama of Flo}rida misfits is just about as entertaining as watching a bunch of mean drunks scream at each other for 80 solid minutes. And I’m not talking witty drunks. I’m talking the sort of dumb, depressing drunks whose verbal skills make the repartee on Jerry Springer look positively Coward-esque by comparison.

Kid Sister 2 - Profiles Theatre ChicagoIt’s tough to believe this waste of space, time and good actors is by the same author as Hellcab. One wonders what befell playwright Will Kern in the years between that earlier effort – a whipsmart, insightful comedy peopled with characters of razorsharp definition – and Kid Sister. Hellcab ran for nearly a decade in Chicago, and deservedly so. Kid Sister should not run beyond opening night. And that’s being generous.

On the surface, Kid Sister invites comparisons to Killer Joe (our review ★★★½), Tracy Letts’ thrilling and twisted comedy of matricide, sociopaths and trailer trash (and a huge hit for Profiles earlier this year). Like Killer Joe, Kid Sister’s set is a single room filled with strewn junk food wrappers and booze bottles, furnished by a grimy refrigerator, a battered card table, and a couch that looks like a health hazard. The similarities continue:  There’s a murder involving trash bags, and an ensemble of characters who lack the basic vocabulary to make themselves understood. But where Killer Joe was brilliantly funny and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, Kid Sister is neither. Instead of dialogue, Kid Sister gives us people screaming at each other with all the verbal skills of slow middle schoolers.

Which would be fine if Kern gave us characters worth caring about. He doesn’t. Not for a moment in Kid Sister is there ever a single person to empathize with, and thus not for a moment does it ever feel like anything is at stake. You’re simply watching people act out, moving from one scene of shrieking degradation to another.

Directed by Joe Jahraus, Kid Sister begins with 19-year-old Demi –making the skanky most of both boobs and legs in a tatty denim miniskirt and a dollar-store hoochie mama top – screeching and waving a gun as her sadsack boyfriend Babe comes home from a shift at a local fast food joint. Despite the barrage of c*nts and f*cks and other profanities Demi hurls, the scene isn’t so much shocking as it is boring and repetitive. After the first three or so c-words, the shock turns into tedium.

That tedium isn’t broken up by any gradation in emotion either – Demi (Allison Torem) starts at 10 on the shrill-o-meter and remains there for the duration of the production. It’s a one-note performance: Imagine someone blasting a referee’s whistle for almost an hour and a half – that’s the overall tone of Kid Sister.

But it’s not just the grim, monotonous invective that makes Kid Sister such a non-starter despite its high-decibel attempts to be otherwise. Demi, the character at the center of the plot, is so over-the-top in her delusional self-centeredness that she’s never once believable. I get it – she’s supposed to be up to her eyeballs in denial about the bleak reality of her situation and/or profoundly damaged by years of drugs and abuse. But even taking such limitations into account, it’s simply not believable that a 19-year-old with a functioning brain stem would be so mired in fairy tale-level delusion. Prattling on about how she’s going to be rich, famous and hanging out with Gwen Stefani in six months, Demi sounds like a bratty five-year-old.

Even if Demi’s extreme pipe dreams were believable, Kern gives us no reason to care about them – or her or any one she interacts with. His plot is a series of unfortunate events strung together with all the dramatic tension of so many non-sequitors. When Demi’s stalker (Marc Singletary) finally shows up, it’s a shrugging so-what kind of moment. When Demi’s brother (Darrell Cox) makes an unexpected revelation , it’s about as momentous as a traffic report. When splatter-film-worthy violence erupts in the piece’s denouement, the result isn’t edginess or horrifying – it’s just cheesy gory like a scene out of a bargain basement haunted house. But unlike a low-budget haunted house scene, this Sister is simply no fun.

   
   
Rating:
 
 

Kid Sister continues through Dec. 19 at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway. Tickets are $30 Thursdays, $35 Fridays,Saturdays and Sundays, For ticket information, click here or go to www.profilestheatre.org.

Kid Sister poster - Profiles Theatre Chicago

 

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REVIEW: The Seagull (Goodman Theatre)


          
           

Robert Falls allows this glorious ‘Seagull’ to soar

 

 

Nina (Heather Wood) listens as Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain) talks about his obsession with writing and the fame that consequently follows as Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher) looks on.

   
Goodman Theatre presents
   
The Seagull
   
Written by Anton Chekhov 
Directed by
Robert Falls 
Goodman’s Owen Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn
(map)
through November 21  |   tickets: $20-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

With The Seagull, Robert Falls makes a stunning 180-degree swerve from the massive, nearly operatic productions he’s staged over the past few years. If King Lear and Desire Under the Elms were thundering landslides of theatricality, The Seagull is a lone, perfect pebble. Which isn’t to say Falls’ take on Anton Chekhov’s ground-breaking masterpiece lacks the gob-smacking emotional heft of his overtly showier efforts. Far from it. Played by actors in minimal costumes on a bare stage, The Seagull is as thrilling a production as you’re apt to see this season – an example of storytelling at its most powerful. That Falls manages to enthrall without the help of conventional costumes, sets or even lighting design illustrates just how gifted the Goodman’s Artistic Director is.

(clockwise from front center) Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) informs Masha (Kelly O’Sullivan), Dr. Dorn (Scott Jaeck), Sorin (Francis Guinan) and Medvendenko (Demetrios Troy) that Nina has returned to town but will not see any of them.Another indication of Falls storytelling prowess: Two hours of The Seagull elapse before the audience is released for an intermission. We’d be the first to cry foul at such a demand. Holding your audience captive for 115 minutes? Not fair. Moreover, since the vast majority of the dialogue within The Seagull seems to deal solely with superficial inanities, such a marathon sit will surely be all but intolerable, yes? In this case, no. Falls and his rockstar cast have captured the emotional truth in Chekhov’s text with a power and a glory that makes the piece fly by. Those first two hours feel like 20 minutes.

The intricate passions of Chekhov’s story are reflected in the sprawling cast, every member of which has their own vibrantly realized emotional life – right down to a cook (Laura T. Fisher) who has but a single line and less than a minute of stage time. When even the ‘bit’ roles are this rich, you know you have an ensemble of extraordinary power.

The action – which is actually mostly dialogue – spans several years and takes place on the country estate of Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), a famed, vain actress for whom adulation is an opiate. Much of The Seagull focuses on Arkadina’s tectonic clashes with her angry young son Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush), a playwright struggling with love and art. The difference between mother and son is akin to the difference between Broadway in Chicago and any number of tiny, Off-Loop theaters. Which is to say: Konstantin, who sees his own art as pure, beautiful and meaningful while dismissing his mother’s shows as pandering tripe.

 

Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher) expresses her deep passion and need for Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain) to stay with her. Masha (Kelly O’Sullivan) seeks to numb her feelings and shut out the rest of the world.
Sorin (Francis Guinan) attempts to comfort Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) as he grapples with the complexities of his life. Nina (Heather Wood) performs in one of Konstantin’s plays in front of (l to r) Medvendenko (Demetrios Troy), Shamrayev (Steve Pickering), Polina (Janet Ulrich Brooks), Dr. Dorn (Scott Jaeck), Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), Trigorin (Cliff Chamberlain), Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) and Sorin (Francis Guinan).

Fisher is glorious, mining both comedy and pathos from a character whose depths are often profoundly superficial.  Grush is perfectly cast as a tortured artist who strives for edginess with the rage of a petulant child who is certain that adults are trivial and adult artists are pandering hacks. In their scenes together, the two are incendiary, a mother and son whose see-sawing love/hate relationship will never find an even keel.

Kelly O’Sullivan’s Masha is equally indelible, a black-clad emo/Goth prototype capable of the sort of gasp-inducing cruelty borne of unbearable sorrow and frustration. In capturing the bitter aesthetic of a woman who knows her life is over at 20, O’Sullivan is also laugh-out-loud funny, blurring the line between tragedy and comedy with such finesse that they become impossible to tell apart. As Masha’s husband, Demetrios Troy continues establishing himself as one of the most fascinating young actors around, portraying the put-upon Medvedenko as the personification of disillusionment and impotent fury borne not of hatred but of love.

And as Nina, the radiant, innocent young woman who is as easily destroyed as the titular bird Konstantin slaughters, Heather Wood makes Chekhov’s overarching metaphor a devastating heart-breaker.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Konstantin (Stephen Louis Grush) shows his affection for his mother, Arkadina (Mary Beth Fisher), after a traumatic experience.

 

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