2011 Non-Equity Jeff Award Winners!

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2011 Non-Equity Jeff Award Recipients

Monday, June 6th 2011

32 different companies were recognized going into the 2011 non-Equity Joseph Jefferson Awards. The Hypocrites, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre and Lifeline Theatre had the most nominations. Redtwist Theatre was close behind while scoring 3 out of the 6 Best Play Production nominations. The non-equity Jeff Awards got off to a bang at the Park West Monday night with a lively Red Carpet show broadcast online prior (pictures), hosted by Eric Roach and Anderson Lawfer. The awards show was hosted by Kevin Bellie of Circle Theatre. It kicked off with a musical number from Theo Ubique’s Cats. After the parade of nominees, and a Lady Gaga bit performed by Bellie, the awards were doled out. The awards did not go off without a hitch, as the Best Director of a Musical was at first awkwardly announced incorrectly. Here’s how everything played out:

2011 NON-EQUITY JEFF AWARD RECIPIENTS

PRODUCTION / PLAY

Man from Nebraska Redtwist Theatre 

PRODUCTION / MUSICAL

Cabaret – The Hypocrites

DIRECTOR / PLAY

Jimmy McDermott   (Three Faces of Doctor Crippen, The Strange Tree Group)
James Palmer   (The Love of the Nightingale, Red Tape Theatre

DIRECTOR / MUSICAL

Matt Hawkins   (Cabaret, The Hypocrites)

ENSEMBLE

Shakespeare’s King Phycus, The Strange Tree Group w/ Lord Chamberlain’s Men

ACTOR IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE / PLAY

Chuck Spencer in Man from Nebraska, Redtwist Theatre

ACTOR IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE / MUSICAL

Andrew Mueller in Big River, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

ACTRESS IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE / PLAY

Caroline Neff in Helen of Troy, Steep Theatre Company
Nicole Wiesner in First Ladies, Trap Door Theatre

ACTRESS IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE / MUSICAL

Jessie Fisher in Cabaret, The Hypocrites

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE / PLAY

Brian Perry in Shining City, Redtwist Theatre

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE / MUSICAL

Courtney Crouse in Big River, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTNG ROLE / PLAY

Sara Pavlak in Agnes of God, Hubris Productions

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE / MUSICAL OR REVUE

Kate Harris in Cabaret, The Hypocrites

NEW WORK

Emily Schwartz for The Three Faces of Doctor Crippen, The Strange Tree Group

NEW ADAPTATION

Robert Kauzlaric for Neverwhere, Lifeline Theatre

CHOREOGRAPHY

Brenda Didier for Cats, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

ORIGINAL INCIDENTAL MUSIC

Chris Gingrich, Henry Riggs, Thea Lux, and Tara Sissom That Sordid Little Story,  The New Colony

MUSIC DIRECTION

Austin Cook for Some Enchanted Evening: The Songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

SCENIC DESIGN

Alan Donahue for Neverwhere, Lifeline Theatre

LIGHTING DESIGN

Jared Moore for No Exit, The Hypocrites

COSTUME DESIGN

Matt Guthier for Cats, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Alison Siple for Cabaret, The Hypocrites

SOUND DESIGN

Mikhail Fiksel for Neverwhere, Lifeline Theatre

ARTISTIC SPECIALIZATION

Glen Aduikas, Rick Buesing, Mike Fletcher, Salvador Garcia, Stuart Hecht, David Hyman, Terry Jackson, Don Kerste, Bruce Phillips, Al Schilling, Lisi Stoessel, Eddy Wright – Robot design and engineering for Heddatron, Sideshow Theatre Company

Izumi Inaba: Makeup Design for Cats, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

  
  

Review: Nunsense (Metropolis Performing Arts Centre)

     
     

Old habits die hard

     
     

Nunsense2

   

Metropolis Performing Arts Centre presents

    
    

Nunsense

   
Book, Music and Lyrics by Dan Goggin
Directed by David Belew
at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington Heights (map)
through June 19  | 
tickets: $35-$43  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost and Dan Jakes

At times, it seems that contemporary nuns exist solely for the purpose of parody. Dan Goggin’s 1985 musical Nunsense, stemming from his line of nun-humored greeting cards, was revolutionary when it came onto the scene with the inappropriate light it shed on the Sisters from Hoboken. Presently, Catholics aren’t in a great place for satire. Financial trouble, dwindling numbers, lawsuits and mainstream appeasement make the once-dominant entity lean closer to the Little Man than the Oppressor. Satire, of course, is all about poking holes in austerity and knocking the Big Man of his ladder; the Church has done a fine job of that on its own. Goggin’s play is more of a Nunsense3nostalgia-bath than a roast, but even so, with Catholics dismissing old-school severity and hands-off ornamentation in favor of a more accessible image, jokes dependent on being silly or naughty with full-habit donned sisters just don’t have the pop they used to. Nevertheless, Metropolis’ production certainly rejuvenates the undeniable phenomenon.

The morbidly clever conceit is that 52 Sisters have died after being poisoned by the convent cook, Sister Julia Child….of God. The surviving nuns were at bingo that night and skipped out on the killer soup. In order to raise money to bury the remaining dead nuns, Sister Mary Regina (Nancy Kolton) organizes a nun-produced fundraiser talent show. The proceedings offer belting nuns, the amnesiac nuns, the cooking nuns, the nuns getting stoned, the nuns kick line-dancing, the nuns shuddering at the scandalous length of Marilyn Monroe‘s skirt, and the nuns mispronouncing pop culture references. Mere redundant gags, they aren’t. No, these are test subjects, empirical data in an unscrupulous study that combs every aspect of convent-oriented humor which lead to the likes of Sister Act and Late Nite Catechism.

When entering Metropolis’ gorgeous Arlington Heights performing arts centre, you may think you’re entering the space of ATC’s Original Grease as the scenic designer, Michael Gehmlich, has created a set that perfectly mimics an old Catholic high school gym-atorium with glittery hand painted Grease posters complimented with Jesus on the cross in stained-glass illuminated above in the rafters. Yousif Mohamed’s lighting design expertly fills the expanse of the space and the light shifts play to the comedy sharply.

Director David Belew draws crisp energetic performances from his talented cast. Kristen Gurbach Jacobson’s choreography is the perfect mix of skill, camp and parody. The multi-talented Nancy Kolton as Sister Mary Regina ultimately carries the show by investing everything into the role, including a hysterical drug trip in which she gives her whole body to. Amy Malouf (Sister Mary Robert Anne) notably ascends above the sentimentality with her spot-on Brooklyn accent and her performance of “I Just Want to Be a Star.”

Nunsense4

The success Nunsense and its sequels have enjoyed over the past two and half decades is nothing to shake a ruler at. You might even call Goggin’s shows “Nunsations” (oh wait, he already gave sequel number six that title). After glancing around at the Metropolis audience, it was easy to see why: buried shallowly under stabs at modernization (Snooki and Donald Trump references, anyone?), this nun-humor is an excuse to reminisce. Current and recovering Catholic school alumni eat up an allusion to student-herding clickers. The rest of the proceedings are slathered in well-meaning silliness and elbow-nudging puns.

If you did happen to grow up going to Catholic school, and you haven’t experienced Nunsense, Metropolis’ production is about as fun as this show gets, so “get thee to a nun-…” well, just check out this fine revival of a silly musical sensation that seems to be sticking around at least as long as there are baby boomers still around to repent.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Nunsense1

Performances of Nunsense continue through June 19th. Schedule varies week to week and includes evening and matinee performances. The running time is approximately 2 hours with one intermission. Tickets range $35 – 43 and can be purchased online at www.metropolisarts.com or by calling the Box Office at 847.577.2121.

     
     

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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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Review: Something’s Afoot (Citadel Theatre)

     
     

Who dunnit? Who cares?

     
     

The cast of Citadel Theatre's "Something's Afoot" - Kate Andrulis, Sarah Breidenbach, Christopher Davis, Ed Kuffert, Mario Mazzetti, Debra Criche Mell, Dennis Murphy, Gerald Nevin, Ellen Phelps and Andrew J. Pond

  
Citadel Theatre Company presents
   
  
Something’s Afoot
   
 
Book, Music, and Lyrics by James McDonald,
David Vos and Robert Gerlach
Additional music by
Ed Linderman
Directed by Wayne Mell
at Citadel Theatre, Lake Forest, IL  (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $32-$35  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Citadel Theatre clearly has the resources necessary to be a noteworthy professional theatre company in the Chicago area. One instant example of the potential capability of this company is Robert Estrin’s well-designed set. It is impressively built and fills the space perfectly, clueing the audience into the classic English murder mystery style play we’re about to see. It extends nicely outward to give a semi-thrust to the space. I was ready for something akin to The Mystery of Irma Vep, but was quickly disappointed. What Citadel is apparently lacking is the correct caliber of artistic personnel to take the company beyond a community theater on a performance level. Their new 150-seat theatre would be the envy of several companies in the city. However, with director Wayne Mell’s current production of Something’s Afoot, this company’s weaknesses are on display more than its strengths.

A scene from Citadel Theatre's "Something's Afoot", directed by Wayne Mell.Something’s Afoot was written in 1972 as an American musical spoof of the British murder mystery genre, particularly Agatha Christie. We begin the play by meeting the maid, Lettie (a comically talented Kaitlyn Andrulis). Lettie, along with the butler Clive (Dennis Murphy) and the handyman Flint (Edward Kuffert), welcome all of the house guests to the estate of Lord Rancour on a stormy night with effective lighting by Deb Holmen. Each individual enters and embodies a different stereotype, including the young ingénue Hope (played by Sarah Breidenbach with the loveliest voice in the show), the flamboyant nephew Nigel (Mario Mazzetti), the eccentric modern major Col. Gillweather (sharply played by Andrew J. Pond), the Martha Stewart of detectives Miss Tweed (Debra Criche Mell) and more.

One by one they drop. Who is the killer? This spoof doesn’t play out quite as fun as it should with some of the songs bordering on pointlessly halting the show. However, other numbers, such as the first act’s “Something’s Afoot,” manage to further the plot and entertain. As a whole, the cast is underwhelming and at times cringe-worthy in their vocals and harmonies. Luckily, there are a few talented comedic actors who give the evening a handful of laughs. Pond is a standout, giving one of the more polished comedic performances of the evening. His death-by-poison bit is one of a handful of solid laughs in the show. Kuffert’s performance in the song, “Dinghy” is another highlight.

The ending of this parody in many ways pulls the rug out from under you. However, I don’t think Mell’s production quite earns the ironic ending because the rest of the play truly needs to be sharp and much quicker paced in order to achieve the intended effect of having the bottom drop out. Instead, this ensemble and production largely clunks its way to the ending revelation. Marianne L. Brown’s choreography often comes off as forced and robotic. The tap dancing is evidently beyond the cast’s skill level and rather plays as amateurish.

The cast of Citadel Theatre's "Something's Afoot" - Kate Andrulis, Sarah Breidenbach, Christopher Davis, Ed Kuffert, Mario Mazzetti, Debra Criche Mell, Dennis Murphy, Gerald Nevin, Ellen Phelps and Andrew J. Pond

Although serving the northern suburb community, as a Chicago area theatre Citadel must be considered alongside all of the amazing theatres in the city, meaning a show in the farther suburbs must be well worth the trip to recommend. Overall, Mell’s direction is too unpolished, overly presentational and unspecific. While I am usually apt to forgive a few performance mishaps, the performance I attended had a plethora of line flubs, technical jams and one long awkward pause where two actors stood like deer in headlights waiting for the sound operator to find their cue on the recorded soundtrack (another reason why you shouldn’t do a musical if you can’t get live musicians). It may have been an “off-night,” but with more dedication and professional artists involved those happen less, and would help distinguish Citadel from community theater and allow them to be on the same stage with the best of Chicagoland’s companies.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

The cast of Citadel Theatre's "Something's Afoot" - Kate Andrulis, Sarah Breidenbach, Christopher Davis, Ed Kuffert, Mario Mazzetti, Debra Criche Mell, Dennis Murphy, Gerald Nevin, Ellen Phelps and Andrew J. Pond

Citadel Theatre’s production of Something’s Afoot continues through June 5th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 2pm. Tickets are $35 ($32 for students and seniors). The space is located at the Lake Forest High School West Campus, 300 S Waukegan Road. Tickets can be purchased by phone (847-735-8554) or online. For more information, visit citadeltheatre.org.

  
  

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Review: Ismene (Dream Theatre)

     
     

A marathon of self-indulgence

     
     

Jeremy Menekseoglu as Te in Dream Theatre's Ismene

   
Dream Theatre Company presents
  
  
Ismene
   
   
Written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu
at Dream Theatre, 556 W 18th St. (map
through June 5  |  tickets: $15 – $18  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

A good rule of courtesy for Chicago theatre companies to follow ought to be: if a production’s runtime exceeds two hours on a weeknight, there must be some warning of this information somewhere, be it on the theatre company’s website or in the program. In Jeremy Menekseoglu’s at times excruciating three hour long production of Ismene, Dream Theatre makes that information available to no one anywhere. This is a selfish and disrespectful lack of consideration to the Chicago theatergoing community, many who have jobs on weekdays in this blue collar town. Anne Menekseoglu as Ismene in Dream Theatre's "Ismene", written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu. (Photo: Giau Truong)Menekseoglu is the playwright, director, sound designer, scenic designer and lead actor in what is ultimately a festival of self indulgence for the artist who holds his audience captive (literally the door to the Pilsen space is locked after the show begins giving patrons a struggle to exit at the two hour intermission mark). While there are several talented actresses involved in Ismene, the script and lack of direction take the life out of their skills with a monotonous overly clichéd meta-theatrical affair.

The evening actually starts out rather interesting with a Circus barker (an intriguing Chad Sheveland) greeting the audience at the door of the storefront lobby along with Thespia (Natalie Breitmeyer), the first member of the chorus (of the Greek variety) to escape and develop individual thoughts. After this brief pre-show we are introduced to Ismene (the very same sister to Antigone). Anna Menekseoglu as the title character in the prologue is captivating, delivering a monologue that is an example of the potential poetic skill of the playwright. She declares that her chorus has died, leaving herself to the decisions of independent will. This concept is interesting enough, but Jeremy Menekseoglu’s script only gets more and more muddled from here allowing the production to slowly spiral downward to a point where nothing can remain compelling or entertaining.

While the audience is still in the front lobby during this pre-show, Erin (a feisty Michelle Apalategui) convinces Ismene to come with her to a school for forgotten girls. At this point the audience is escorted into the larger auditorium space where Menekseoglu has housed his massive set. We learn that the school is run by Procne (played by Rachel Martindale with a captivating vocal quality), who is also known in Greek myth for killing her son and feeding his flesh to her husband. However, if you are unaware of the intricacies of this myth and the tapestry created by her sister Philomena (Alicia Reese), it will all play as just another confounding layer in this dense play. The myth could be seen in a far superior adaptation last year in Red Tape Theatre’s The Love of the Nightingale (our review).

Eventually, the story goes every which way, including the presence of a zombie Greek chorus (which should’ve been a way cooler concept). Jeremy Menekseoglu plays Te, who at first is thought to be one of the chorus. Menekseoglu, while displaying strong physicality, is macabre for the sake of being so and lavishes in it far too much to no effect by kissing, abusing and molesting most of the women throughout. There is a slight parallel throughout the play, which could be focused on further, to fighting breast cancer and rejecting acceptance of your fate. However, Menekseoglu’s actions on stage somewhat contradict the female empowerment message. Also, there is an excess of themes, motifs, characters and plots trying to be tackled to give any one of them their due attention.

         
Alicia Reese as Philomena in Dream Theatre's "Ismene", by Jeremy Menekseoglu Dream Theatre's "Ismene", by Jeremy Menekseoglu Chad Sheveland as The Barker in Dream Theatre's "Ismene", by Jeremy Menekseoglu

It’s undeniable that Menekseoglu and Dream Theatre have an ambitious aesthetic. At times they excel, such as their well received production of Electra (review ★★★½). However, it’s also clear that at times like this they become lost in their vision and become far too precious with each character and aspect of the story. Moments like peering into the audience and contemplating the presence of the audience as voyeurs is a provoking concept the first time, but Menekseoglu takes the convention past resonance by devoting a plethora of time for each character to have this experience. The effect is entirely inward for the actors’ own pleasure and indulgent to the point where the audience is truly delegated to simply being a presence while Menekseoglu and the cast can revel in themselves. The production and script clearly needs a true director keeping the audience in mind and cutting extraneous elements to convey the play and a unified message more successfully.

The evening is packed with tragic stories being revealed endlessly, many with five minute long melancholy monologues to accompany them. The tragedy cannot have any emotional effect after a certain point. Furthermore, Menekseoglu’s distracting and dreary soundtrack is oppressive, forcing the performances to go along at its tedious pace. Near the end of Menekseoglu’s production when Ismene considers gouging her eyes out with her father’s (Oedipus) needles, I couldn’t help but almost relate with her after three hours watching this bloated display of self-serving theatre.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

Annelise Lawson as Iphigenia in Dream Theatre's "Ismene" by Jeremy Menekseoglu

Dream Theatre Company presents Ismene, written and directed by Jeremy Menekseoglu. The show runs through Sunday, June 5th at Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th Street, Chicago. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm Sundays at 7:00 p.m. with a Monday performance on Memorial Day, May 30th at 8pm. Tickets are $15 – $18 and can be reserved by visiting dreamtheatrecompany.com or by calling 773-552-8616.

  
  

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Review: Watership Down (Lifeline Theatre)

  
  

A hopping fantasy adventure

 
  

Hazel-rah (Paul S. Holmquist) and his warren - Watership Down

   
Lifeline Theatre presents
  
  
Watership Down   
   
  
Adapted by John Hildreth
from book by Richard Adams
Directed by
Katie McLean Hainsworth
Original music by Mikhail Fiksel
at
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N Glenwood (map)
through June 19  | 
tickets: $20-$35   |   more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Having not read Richard Adamscritically acclaimed 1972 novel, “Watership Down”, I was a little concerned about getting lost with the mythology in Lifeline Theatre’s new adaptation, just judging by the length of the novel and how much would need to be condensed. While the world of rabbit gods and legends with names like Frith and El-ahrairah can be a little much to take in at first, John Hildreth’s stage adaptation doesn’t take long to captivate as you escape into this world. If you are the type who found no pleasure in any of the “Lord of the Rings” films, or just can’t get past the idea As told in legend, El-ahrairah (Paul S. Holmquist, right), Prince of Rabbits, and Rabscuttle (Scott T. Barsotti, left) enter the burrow of the Black Rabbit of Inlé on a quest to save their people; in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Watership Down,” adapted by John Hildreth, directed by Katie McLean Hainsworth, based on the bestselling novel by Richard Adams. (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)of humans playing rabbits (mostly without the pointy ears), then this fanciful tale may not be for you. However, if you can allow your imagination to escape in director Katie McLean Hainsworth’s smart, physical, and visually exciting (yet never over the top in spectacle) production, then you’re in for a fun adventure.

Hildreth’s adaptation, as with any good literary adaptation, strives to stay true to the core heart of the book while ensuring that the action on stage is constantly moving the story forward remaining compelling to watch. Hildreth begins Adams’ tale with Fiver (Scott T. Barsotti), a young rabbit who has clairvoyant abilities. He senses destruction coming to this particular rabbit warren (stemming from human intervention). He confides this information to his brother Hazel (Paul S. Holmquist) and they inform the Chief Rabbit of the warren (played with unpredictable eccentricity by Matt Kahler). After the Chief Rabbit ignores Fiver’s warnings, Hazel makes the decision to put together a band of fellow rabbits from the warren and venture out in search of a new home safe from danger. With the help of rabbits such as Blackberry (a perfectly cast Chris Daley), an extremely intelligent rabbit (in a modern context very aptly named), and Bigwig (a strong and complex performance by Christopher M. Walsh), who has the brawn of the group.

Throughout their journey they meet new friends, enemies and obstacles before they ultimately reach their destination of an ideal new home called Watership Down. It is the Lincoln Park condo of rabbit fields, luxury rabbit living with all the amenities. The only issue for their survival is that this troop is all male. They need female rabbits in their warren if they hope to thrive. With the assistance of a wounded gull they help heal, Kehaar (a bold scene-stealing performance by Jesse Manson), they discover female rabbits at a nearby farm in captivity. They manage to bring back one, Clover (a charming Chelsea Paice).

The other expedition proves to be much more treacherous as Bigwig goes undercover in what’s essentially a totalitarian rabbit warren where the females are enslaved and utilized strictly for breeding. Hazel and the gang lead a rescue mission to save the females and ultimately defend their new warren against General Woundwart (a deliciously evil Dave Skvarla) and his fascist army of scar marked rabbits. Hildreth also finds time to integrate scenes involving El-ahrairah (also played by Holmquist), the folk-hero prince of rabbits who characterizes all of the virtues rabbits aspire to. While intriguing, the jumps to these scenes occasionally take the air out of the action. All the while, the audience is free to connect the themes and motifs of the story to a multitude of religious and historical parallels including Christianity, WWII and the founding of Rome including the rape of the Sabine women (pretty thought-provoking for a tale about bunnies).

Scott T. Barsotti as Fiver (left) and Paul S. Holmquist as Hazel (right) in Lifeline Theatre's "Watership Down".  (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)Hainsworth’s direction keeps things rather simple by choosing to avoid transforming the actors fully into rabbits, and instead focuses on the physicality. At times, she does have some difficulty grappling with stage pictures when the majority of the ensemble is on stage in this compact space. Also, the opening pacing drags slightly but that is coupled with the simple fact that there’s a lot of mythology being thrown at the audience in the initial scenes of Hildreth’s script.

In his double duty as movement designer, Holmquist helps create varied and fascinating choices in the physical performances of the ensemble. Richard Gilbert and Dave Gregory of R & D Choreography enhance the production greatly with their acrobatic and theatrical violence design. Matt Engle is a standout in his dynamic fights. Wenhai Ma’s set creates some excellent levels and provides a good playground for the actors to play scenes in various locations including into the audience. Joanna Iwanicka’s puppet and mask design echoes the recent Broadway Equus, but is entirely appropriate and meshes well with Hainworth’s minimal concept. Her video design provides some gorgeous, yet not too distracting abstract landscapes, however the glowing orb of the god Frith is perhaps a little too makeshift and underwhelming.

Watership Down is a faithful adaptation fit perfectly for the Lifeline Theatre aesthetic. It could certainly have gone in a more fanciful and spectacular direction (imagine a stage full of Easter bunny suits), but Hainsworth’s concept along with Aly Renee Amidei’s contemporary costumes (the farm rabbits’ preppy clothing is a gas) keeps the characters and themes of the story relatable and grounded for us human observers. This certainly requires your mind to fill in some gaps in the imagery, but for the willing audience member, the effort is well worth the journey in the end. With a dedicated and creative ensemble tackling this largely fascinating adaptation, I think it’s safe to say, “Lifeline has done it again.”

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Jesse Manson as Kehaar (left) and Christopher M. Walsh as Bigwig (right) in Lifeline Theatre's "Watership Down". (Photo: Suzanne Plunkett)

Lifeline Theatre presents Watership Down, running April 29—June 19, 2011 at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood Ave. (free parking and shuttle). Regular performance times are Thursdays and Fridays at 7:30 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., and Sundays at 4 p.m. Tickets are $35 for regular single tickets on Saturdays and Sundays, $32 for regular single tickets on Thursdays and Fridays, $27 for seniors, $20 for students, and $20 rush tickets. Tickets may be purchased at the Lifeline Theatre Box Office, 773.761.4477, or by visiting www.lifelinetheatre.com.

  
  

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Review: Nunset Boulevard (Theatre at the Center)

     
     

Newest nun revue is less than holy

     
     

Lauren Creel, Felicia Fields, Alene Robertson, Nicole Miller & Mary Robin Roth in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.

   

Theatre at the Center presents

  

Nunset Boulevard

  

Written By Dan Goggin
Directed and choreographed by Stacey Flaster
at Theatre at the Center, Munster, IN (map)
through May 29   |   tickets: $20- $40  |   more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

They say, “When you find something that works for you, stick to it.” Dan Goggin has made a living off of his troop of fictional nuns from Hoboken, New Jersey since the debut of his smash hit musical Nunsense in 1985. After seven spin-offs Goggin has penned the latest nun adventure, Nunset Boulevard. The musical nuns from Jersey travel to California for a gig at the Hollywood Bowl….-A-Rama. It makes some sense that the Chicago area premiere of this new show is being produced at Theater at the Center in Munster, Indiana, since, after all, Northwest Indiana is seemingly Chicago’s Jersey. It’s where we send our landfill, refining and casino gamblers. In this case, it’s where we send somewhat tired musical comedy such as this production directed rather flatly by Stacey Flaster. While there is some huge talent (namely Tony award nominee Felicia Fields) and occasional chuckles, it’s not quite worth the trip down I-90/94 for what is ultimately a cabaret show with too much space to fill.

Mary Robin Roth (Sister Robert Anne) and Nicole Miller (Sister Leo) in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.In their latest outing, our showbiz sisters arrive in Hollywood for what they think is a booking at the famous Hollywood Bowl. Instead, they are scheduled to appear at the Hollywood Bowl-A-Rama, a bowling alley somewhere in Hollywood. While generally Goggin’s nun shows are largely a cabaret style, Sister Hubert (Fields) suggests in this production that they include a plot (in one of the more fun musical numbers of the night). The show is still primarily though a cabaret style performance of comedic bits, musical numbers, improv and interacting with the audience (probably the highlight of the evening). However, there is a through line revolving around Sister Leo (Nicole Miller) and her quest to get “discovered” in Hollywood. It turns out a movie musical about nuns is auditioning across the street. Sister Robert Anne (Mary Robin Roth) is skeptical. She is especially conflicted when Sister Leo asks permission to appear before the casting director without wearing her habit. There is also Sister Amnesia (Lauren Creel), whose schitck is that she lost her memory due to a giant crucifix falling on her head.

The raunchier bits play the best, however there are not many of them. During the improv segment with the audience, there is a game made of naming famous nuns from the movies which rewards certain audience members with very funny religious keepsakes. The fact that the nuns sing and dance isn’t novel enough anymore to carry the interest of the audience over two hours. The Hollywood they are visiting is decidedly a Hollywood of old with songs like “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” and a parade of classic Hollywood blonde bombshells.

Fields provides some wonderful vocals and dry humor to the evening. Creel and Miller are also standouts with their energy. But, Flaster’s direction, along with certain Mary Robin Roth as Sister Robert Anne in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.performances, hamper the pacing. There’s a comedy-killing pause between nearly every line dragging the show down. The cast overall plays too small to fill this space. Also, there were numerous instances where several actors were restarting lines which took the wind out of any possibility for consistent laughs.

Stephen Carmody’s set is a “Vegas meets Magic Kingdom” take on Hollywood. The expansive facade could hold a big band and 20 chorus girls. Instead, we get 3 keyboardists, a drum kit and five nuns. The one-liners and corny, yet sometimes delightful, tunes come across as though they would fit better in a nightclub setting. The formality of this large theatre complex drowns out most of the charm.

Overall, the production elements are too polished and gaudy in contrast with what’s essentially comedic sketches and light songs. The vastness of the theater demands too much non-stop entertainment. I feel the same show could be placed in a setting such as Mary’s Attic (an upstairs bar lounge in Andersonville) and achieve a much better effect on its audience. There is definitely something here for diehard fans of Goggin’s nun series, but not enough to spark any excitement as these Jersey girls’ take on Tinsel Town.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Felicia Fields, Lauren Creel, Alene Robertson, Nicole Miller & Mary Robin Roth in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.

Theatre at the Center presents the Chicago Area premiere of Dan Goggin’s Nunset Boulevard, directed by Stacey Flaster, April 28- May 29 at 1040 Ridge Rd, Munster, IN. The performance schedule is Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2:00 p.m. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $36 on Wednesdays-Thursdays, and $20-$40 Fridays- Sundays. Tickets may be purchased by phone (219-836-3255) or online at theatreatthecenter.com.

  
  

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