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

  
  

OMPF - One Minute Play Festival - Victory Gardens - banner

 

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

 

by Dan Jakes and Oliver Sava

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

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

Paper Airplane, Aaron Carter  

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

Two Vegans, Robert Tenges

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

A Play, Kristoffer Diaz

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

The Last Walk, Lisa Dillman

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

Inequity, Jake Minton

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

Haiku Fight, Caitlin Montanye Parrish

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

This Just In, Stephen Louis Grush

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

Bag Thief, Laura Jacqmin

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

Blackout, Chisa Hutchinson

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

In Not Our Finest Hour, Andrew Hinderaker

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

Wisconsin, Andrew Hinderaker 

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

Free, Zayd Dohrn

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

A Short Story, Emily Schwartz 

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

Love Play for Two Chairs, Seth Bockley 

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

Unsolicited Advice for Next Year’s Fest

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

A Greater Assortment of Styles:

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

Super-titles:

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

Clear Intent Behind Curation:

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


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

Reviewers: Dan Jakes and Oliver Sava

     
     

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Review: Fifty Words (Profiles Theatre)

        
        

A rapid-fire assault on a crumbling marriage

  
  

Darrell W. Cox and Katherine Keberlein in Profile Theater's "Fifty Words", by Michael Weller.  (Photo: Wayne Karl)

  
Profiles Theatre presents
   
  
Fifty Words
  
Written by Michael Weller
Directed by Joe Jahraus
at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway (map)
through June 26  |  tickets: $35-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

On the way to Profiles, my friend and I were discussing how a play is like the season finale of a TV show, when months, even years worth of plots come to a head, often leaving the audience on a cliffhanger that makes them crave more. The difference is that a play doesn’t have a season’s worth of episodes leading up to it, and playwrights have to integrate all that history into the script without breaking the momentum of the present catastrophe. Michael Weller’s Fifty Words condenses ten years worth of marital crises into a 90-minute whirlwind of exposed secrets and pent-up aggression, as Jan (Katherine Keberlein) and Adam (Darrell H. Cox) spend their first night alone together in 9 years. With their son Dylan in Staten Island for a sleepover, Adam sees the evening as a rare opportunity to revive their struggling sex life, attempting to seduce his wife while she’s preoccupied with their son and her upstart online business. Champagne and take-out aren’t enough to take Jan’s mind off Dylan’s troubling behavior at school and Adam’s lengthy business trips to the Midwest, and the dinner discussion turns ugly as truths come out that could potentially destroy their family.

Darrell W. Cox and Katherine Keberlein in Profile Theater's "Fifty Words", by Michael Weller.  (Photo: Wayne Karl)Weller writes quick dialogue that Keberlein and Cox maneuver swiftly, snapping at each other like animals as the stakes are heightened. The mood is constantly shifting as the aggression between the two turns sexual, and Joe Jahraus’ direction captures the tension well, especially in the intimate (some one would say tight) Profiles space. The actors are kept on opposite ends of the kitchen when the arguments are at their fiercest, and when they are physically close it’s either to relieve the tension or because the tension just snapped. Lindsey Lyddan’s lighting design reflects the tonal shifts during the scenes changes, with cool blue washing over the sensual moments and stark red highlighting the more furious sequences. It’s a bit obvious, but it works in the context of Weller’s script, which has a lot of the standard tropes of the marriage power play –overbearing wife, inattentive husband, troubled child, infidelity – but approaches the concepts from intriguing new angles.

Fifty Words is about the relationship between power and desire, and Jan and Adam are in the paradoxical situation of wanting to take individual control of their marriage wile still wanting a more aggressive partner to fulfill personal desires. The conflict arises from the difference in their needs, with Jan wanting Adam to take a more active role in their son’s life while Adam is more concerned with getting his wife in bed. They’re both fully aware of the other’s demands, and they willfully withhold relief to make the other suffer. As revelations come out, the fighting becomes more violent, and sex becomes a weapon. Sex is a major driving force of the plot, and as usual, Profiles doesn’t shy away from the erotic elements of the script.

Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss tried to explain why audiences don’t like nudity and sex on stage, but embrace it on film, and there is certainly something unnerving about seeing a topless woman get ravaged by her husband on their kitchen counter. That’s also not necessarily a bad thing. Nudity creates a strong reaction from the audience, and when the subject is physically in the same room, there’s an added layer of intimacy, especially in Profiles’ small space. The comfort the two actors have in their intensely sexual scenes helps solidify their characters’ relationship, and we get a glimpse of the passion that brought them together in the first place.

Like the best season finales, Fifty Words ends on a hell of a cliffhanger, setting up plenty more story to never be explored. That’s the thing with plays: once the lights come up, the story is over. There’s the very rare play sequel/prequel, and there are playwrights like Martin McDonnagh and August Wilson who have recurring characters and locations through multiple works, but for the most part, this is the last time that you will see these characters. Michael Weller leaves Jan and Adam with their marriage in shambles, but their story lives on in what the audience takes away from this production. Profiles’ production reveals the complexities of love, and the ways that secrets and lies can corrode it from the inside. I’m reminded of a quote from another great marriage crisis play this season, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?: “Be careful who you fall in love with, because you might marry him.” Fifty Words is warning that no matter what word you use to describe it, love will always be an unpredictable force that can hurt as much as it heals.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Katherine Keberlein and Darrell W. Cox in Profile Theater's "Fifty Words", by Michael Weller.  (Photo: Wayne Karl)

Profile Theatre’s Fifty Words continues through June 26th at their theatre space, 4147 N. Broadway, with performances Thursday and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm and 8pm and Sundays at 7pm.  Tickets are $35-$40, and can be purchased by phone (773-549-1815) or online.

All photos by Wayne Karl

  
  

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Review: 500 Clown Trapped (500 Clown & Adventure Stage)

  
  

Getting stuck has never been more fun

  
  

Adrian Danzig, Leah Urzendowski, Timothy Heck - 500 Clown Trapped - photo by Johnny Knight

  
500 Clown and Adventure Stage Chicago presents
   
  
500 Clown Trapped
   
Conceived by Adrian Danzig
Directed by Paola Coletto
at Adventure Stage Chicago, 1012 N. Noble (map)
through May 21  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Teaming up with Adventure Stage Chicago, 500 Clown brings their acrobatic, improvisational storytelling style to an all-ages audience with 500 Clown Trapped. Conceived by 500 Clown artistic director Adrian Danzig, who also stars as the clown trio’s leader Bruce, Trapped finds its three characters stuck in a variety of situations that require them to use their imaginations, bodies, and comedic skills to escape. The show begins with a requisite educational discussion about music, opening conversation between the clowns and audience. Dialogue and interaction with the audience is a trademark of children’s theatre, and Bruce, Stacy (Tim Heck), and Lily (Leah Urzendowski) are constantly finding ways to make the viewer a player as well, sometimes by just walking out into the audience and turning their seats into the stage.

There’s not much plot to speak of, but the main appeal of the production is the ways the actors bring their characters to bombastic life, engrossing the audience as the clowns become further ensnared on their platform full of hamster paper. Bruce the responsible leader, Stacy the clueless goofball, and Lily the emotional wreck combine Keaton-esque slapstick with impressive acrobatic feats to escape their traps, providing comedic context through jokes and sight gags. The banter is quick and natural, and the movement swift and exaggerated, giving the show a rapid pace perfect for a young audience.

Adrian Danzig - 500 Clown Trapped

500 Clown Trapped is definitely intended for children, but there are plenty of elements that adults will be drawn to. Honestly, who doesn’t love a good pratfall? Lily’s pained rendition of “My Heart Will Go On” elevates the sinking Titanic sequence, while her flirtation with Bruce on a crashing plane elicits giggles for the grown-ups as the kids laugh at the organized chaos. And it is organized. Paola Coletto’s sharp direction has the actors utilizing the entire theater space, and the aerial movement is performed flawlessly. The cast never breaks character, and they are completely comfortable engaging with the audience, projecting a welcoming energy that encourages participation. The clowns are always aware of the audience’s reactions, often responding to the comments of excited children in the middle of a bit without ever breaking the flow. It’s clear that these are skilled improvisers, and they’re able to think quickly on their feet, under ground, or suspended in the air.

500 Clown Trapped is the first collaboration between the city’s premier clown company and one of its largest children’s theaters, and hopefully it’s the start of a fruitful relationship between the two. 500 Clown’s history with more adult material makes their approach to children’s theatre one free of condescension, perfect for parents looking for a fun night of family-friendly theater. It may be light on plot, but the 500 Clown gang definitely brings the laughs, and Trapped is a joyful show for the kid in all of us.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Leah Urzendowski, Timothy Heck, Adrian Danzig in "500 Clown Trapped", conceived by Adrian Danzig. (Photo: Johnny Knight)

All photos by Johnny Knight

  

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Review: Elephant Man (Red Ink Productions)

     
     

Messy production needs to find the reality

     
     

Red Ink logo

  
Red Ink Productions presents
   
   
The Elephant Man
   
Written by Bernard Pomerance
Directed by Wenda Shereos
at First Free Church, 5255 N. Ashland (map)
through June 4  |  tickets: $12  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The story of Joseph “John” Merrich (Scott Cupper), otherwise know as the Elephant Man, is one of hope in the face of tragedy, and the goodness that can live under the most hideous of exteriors. Deformed at a young age, Merrick toured Europe as a sideshow attraction until he met Frederick Treves (Tyler Cove), a compassionate doctor who invited Merrick to be examined at the London Hospital, the place Merrick would call home until his death at the age of 27. Bernard Pomerance’s play focuses on the later years of Merrick’s life, as he begins to reenter a world that had shunned him, now visited by royalty rather that the taunting masses.

Directed by Wenda Shereos, Red Ink’s productions suffers from a lack of honesty in the performances, and there’s an artificial quality to the acting that makes it difficult to connect with the action on stage. In the title role, Cupper gives the strongest performance, capturing Merrick’s tortured sadness with only a few of the character’s physical deformities. There’s no makeup or prosthetics used on Cupper’s face, and it would have been nice to see some more done to emphasize Merrick’s mutated features. The costumes are some of the more polished elements of the productions, so it’s odd to see the Elephant Man depicted with such little augmentation.

Merrick’s relationship with Mrs. Kendall (Natalia Leonard), the actress hired by Treves to show John affection, reveals glimpses of a better show, and there’s genuine tenderness in Kendall’s treatment of her client. Kendall becomes the first woman to feel John’s touch, and Cupper resonates with need and satisfaction at the small bit of intimacy, the most truthful moment of the show. There are still the occasional instances the Cupper and Leonard are guilty of high school style “face out to the audience” acting, but that’s a directorial problem that plagues other areas of the play more intensely.

Wenda Shereos’ direction is the main problem of The Elephant Man, and the actors haven’t reached the emotional heights needed to land the script’s full impact. The performances are too safe and subdued, and the second act moves at a crawl as a result. Bizarre choices like having the ensemble exit after a group sequence at the start of act two, only to reenter immediately for an almost identical sequence breaks the momentum of the act before if even starts. The production is underscored by cello soloist William Jason Raynovich, who does much to set the tone of the piece through music, but occasionally plays for a bit too long, further slowing down the production. Much of the emotional power of the script is diminished because of the lagging pace of the place, not helped by sloppy technical aspects like blackouts before actors have finished the scene. At one point, two actors actually pantomimed a prop, completely destroying any illusion of reality. That’s not even excusable for a high school production.

The Elephant Man is an ideal play for Red Ink’s mission statement, exploring a life of suffering and the sanctuary that can be found in other people. Although the echo causes problems when combined with some of the actors’ dialects, the church space brings a certain ambiance that emphasizes Merrick’s faith, and the cross that hangs behind the set is a constant remind of the hope and forgiveness Jesus Christ represents. Like Christ, John Merrick is both every man and more than man, and this production just needs more work so the power of Merrick’s story reaches the audience.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

Red Ink logo

Red Ink Productions’ production of Elephant Man continues through June 4th, with performances Friday and Saturday at 8pm in the First Free Church, 5255 N. Ashland (map).  Tickets are $12, and can be purchased online.

  
  

Review: The Original Grease (American Theater Company)

  
  

Now extended through August 21st!!

 

This show %#&*ing rocks!

  
  

(L to R) Carol Rose, Tony Clarno, Jessica Diaz, Robert Colletti, Kelly Davis Wilson, Adrian Aguilar and Tyler Ravelson in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beiner

  
American Theater Company presents
   
The Original Grease
   
Book/Music/Lyrics by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey
Directed by PJ Paparelli
at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through August 21  |  tickets: $45-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Foul-mouthed, raunchy, and absolutely not for children (although I’d think my parents were the coolest if they took me to this), American Theater Company’s The Original Grease is how Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey’s classic musical was meant to be seen. Forget the Bee Gees and the Australian accents, this Grease is northwest Chicago all the way, and ATC’s production takes pride in its urban heritage, presenting a grittier, yet still effervescently youthful Rydell High Class of 1960. What surprised me most about The Original Grease wasn’t the profanity or sexual explicitness, but how much more of an ensemble piece the stage version is than the movie. Sandy (Kelly Davis Wilson) and Danny (Adrian Aguilar) romance is the spine of the plot, but the relationships between the Burger Palace Boys and the Pink Ladies are fleshed out considerably. Minor characters like Patty Simcox (Alaina Mills) and Miss Lynch (Peggy Roeder) even get their own solos.

Adrian Aguilar and Jessica Diaz in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett BeinerThe show begins at the Class of 1960’s 50-year reunion, where a gleeful/wasted Patricia Simcox Honeywell (Susan Fay) invites the audience to take a trip down memory lane with a slide show of nostalgic Chicago locales that seques into the main action of the play in 1959. Shout outs to Palmer House, Carson’s, and Jewel root the show firmly in Chicago, and “Foster Beach” replaces “Summer Nights” as the recap of Sandy and Danny’s summer tryst. The new (old?) emphasis on the city firmly establishes the setting, but also alters the dynamic within the group of high schoolers. You get the impression that these are kids that have grown up together for most of their lives, and Sandy Dumbrowski’s transformation becomes less of a unique experience, but more of a typical teenage transformation as a way to fit in.

Above all else, The Original Grease succeeds because of the friendship cultivated among the group, a sense of camaraderie that climaxes in a spectacular a cappella arrangement of “We Go Together” at the end of Act One. As the gang pounds beer and passes cigarettes in the Cook County Forest Preserve they break into the film’s closing number, and the nonsensical lyrics have a different impact when they are the drunk ramblings of a group of teenagers. I’m a sucker for rain on stage, so the end of the number his all the right notes, and the ensemble’s unaccompanied vocals blend flawlessly. I wish that Sandy were in the number so Willis could add her brassy vocals to the song, but it’s just another way The Original Grease makes the audience encourage Sandy’s transformation.

Willis’ clean-cut appearance suggest the naïve Sandy that the audience is familiar with, but she shows her character’s fiery side well before her final metamorphosis. The moments where Sandy loses her temper make her change more believable but also make her a worthy opponent for Aguilar, who perfectly captures the lovable asshole vibe of the cocky Danny Zuko. Danny isn’t a very sympathetic character, and he never really pines after Sandy in this production, as “Alone At The Drive-In Movie” is transferred back to it’s original owner Kenickie (Tony Clarno) as a desperate ballad to the absent, potentially pregnant Rizzo (Jessica Diaz). Danny’s change is not about gaining Sandy’s acceptance, and is instead motivated by Danny’s desire to explore his potential.

(L to R) Bubba Weiler, Tyler Ravelson, Robert Colletti, Patrick De Nicola, Adrian Aguilar in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett BeinerPJ Paparelli excels at emphasizing the ways these characters leave their childhoods behind, and during Danny’s solo “How Big I’m Gonna Be,” Danny’s ambition forces him to leave the Burger Palace Boys to become the type of man that might be able to escape working in a factory with the same people’s he’s been surrounded by all his life. By the end of the show, each of the main characters has had to deal with an important teenage problem, and walks away having learned a valuable lesson. Frenchy (Jessie Fisher) finds out its hard to follow your dreams without a high school diploma and Rizzo learns the consequences of a broken condom, while Sandy and Danny show two opposite views of the same issue: changing for the one you love. These are the issues that teenagers have dealt with in the past and will continue to face in the future, an idea that is hammered home by Miss Lynch’s “In My Day,” which brings everything around full circle. Presiding over the reunion, Patricia Simcox Honeywell has become Miss Lynch, reminiscing about days gone by that seem like only yesterday.

The cast of The Original Grease is a remarkably gifted group of actors, whose singing and dancing prowess are matched by their comedic and dramatic chops. Diaz’s Rizzo has a nonchalant confidence that makes her a natural leader, and Diaz captures Rizzo’s struggle to keep up her tough appearance during the powerful “There Are Worse Things I Could Do.” Carol Rose’s sultry Marty is the sexy Pink Lady, and she nails “Freddy My Love,” the doo wop tribute to Marty’s Marine boyfriend during the Pink Ladies sleepover. Fisher’s clueless yet good-intentioned Frenchy is a constant source of comic relief along with the sloppy, silly Jan (Sadieh Rifal), who (L to R) Carol Rose, Jessie Fisher, Kelly Davis Wilson, Sadieh Rifai, Jessica Diaz in a scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beinerdevelops an adorable romance with Burger Palace Boy Roger (Rob Colletti).

Among the boys, Tony Clarno gives Kenickie a ferocity that burns through the comic playfulness of his friends, and the aggression he brings to the characters makes his drive-in breakdown an even stronger moment. Patrick De Nicola’s Sonny steals the show, though, as he constantly tries to assume an assertive role in the group but lacks the confidence and competence of alpha males Danny and Kenickie. Sonny’s attempts to be cool constantly blow up in his face, but once he brings Cha-Cha (Hannah Gomez) to the dance, Sonny goes from hilarious to gut-busting. The two have fantastic chemistry, and Gomez’s Cha-Cha is considerably different from the film version and all the better for it, and pairing her up with Sonny instead of Danny is another way that the stage version expands the world of these characters.

The Original Grease is what I’d like Grease to be all the time. These are characters that talk and act like real kids, with real problems that don’t always have easy answers. There are a few balance issues between the actors and the band that prevents the show from being perfect, but it is a must-see for all fans of the musical in all its iterations. At least for those that won’t mind the colorful language and provocative choreography, because those aren’t gear shifts the boys are grabbing at the end of “Greased Lightning.”

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

A scene from American Theater Company's "The Original Grease". Photo by Brett Beiner

All photos by Brett Beiner

     
     

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Review: A Little Night Music (Circle Theatre)

  
  

An impressive revival of Sondheim’s sex comedy classic

  
  

A Little Night Music cast - Circle Theatre Oak Park

  
Circle Theatre presents
  
A Little Night Music
  
Music/Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim
Book by Hugh Wheeler
Directed by Bob Knuth
at Circle Theatre, Oak Park (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $22-$26  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Stephen Sondheim’s musicals often contain an element of nostalgic regret, focusing on characters that look back on their muddled pasts in hopes of achieving, as A Little Night Music’s Desirée Armfeldt (Anita Hoffman) says, “A coherent future.” The aging artists of Follies, the fairy tales of Into The Woods, Sweeney Todd’s titular anti-hero – these  are just a few of the composer’s characters that are faced with the consequences time brings, and A Little Night Music is one of the most chronology-focused musicals in Sondheim’s canon. Key words like “now,” “soon,” “later,” and “meanwhile” are repeated to emphasize the passage of time, unified by the inquisitive “remember” that sparks the characters’ trips down memory lane. The past, present, and future intersect in a delicate waltz, and Sondheim writes most of the show’s music in ¾ time, overlapping the melodic themes with his signature complexity and precision.

Jeremy Rill (Carl-Magnus) and Deanna Boyd (Charlotte)Bob Knuth’s staging is similar to Trevor Nunn’s recent Broadway revival, with a similarly clean, white-washed set design also from Knuth, and the production’s technical aspects have a similar level of polish. Elizabeth Powell Wislar’s costume design is particularly stunning, and these characters are dressed with the level of elegance and sophistication worthy of their status. Knuth assembles a cast that handles the difficult music especially well, layering the moving voice parts with a great sense of timing, and crisp articulation that is much appreciated during intense numbers like “Weekend in the Country” where multiple parts are being sung simultaneously. Desirée’s five actor companions serve as an observing chorus, and they begin the show with an overture that establishes the melodies that will be revisited throughout the show. In the temporal context of the show, the overture becomes more than just a collection of the show’s most memorable tunes, but rather plants seeds that will later be cultivated by the other actors in the ensemble.

This is a musical about relations – husbands and wives, parents and children, the young and the old – and despite the occasional instance of overacting, Knuth’s cast succeeds in building the character connections that are elevated by Sondheim’s rich music. Hoffman anchors the production with her captivating portrayal of Desirée, capturing the weariness that comes with the touring life and the desire to finally obtain a life of stability with her daughter Fredrika (Alicia Hurtado). When she reunites with her past lover Fredrik Egerman (Kirk Swenk), she sees an opportunity to finally have the life she dreams of, but Fredrik’s eighteen-year-old wife Anne (Stephanie Stockstill) stands in their way. Matters are further complicated by Desirée’s preexisting affair with an insanely jealous dragoon Count Carl-Magnus Malcolm (Jeremy W. Rill), whose destitute wife Charlotte (Deanna Boyd) tells Anne about Desirée’s affairs with both their husbands.

     
Patrick Tierney as Henrik in Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" at Circle Theatre. Khaki Pixley as Petra in Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music"
Stephanie Stockstill (Anne) and Deanna Boyd (Charlotte) in Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" at Circle Theatre. Anita Hoffman (Desirée) and Jeremy W. Rill (Carl-Magnus) in Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music" at Circle Theatre in Oak Park.
   

As Desirée’s partners, Swenk and Rill both showcase strong vocals, and there’s a clear contrast in their affection for Ms. Armfeldt. Fredrick genuinely longs for her on an emotional, whereas Malcolm desires her on a solely sexual level, and Rill gives Malcolm an exaggerated arrogance that works for the character, especially with his powerful singing. As his wife Charlotte, Boyd gives the character an appropriately dreary disposition, but she becomes too much of a caricature when her character breaks out of her depression. Stockstill’s Anne is delightfully naïve at the start of the show, still a child despite having been married for eleven months. The adorable flirtation between Anne and her step-son Henrik (Patrick Tierney) shows how innocent she is in comparison to women like the Egermans’ amorous maid Petra (Khaki Pixley), depicting an Anne who is anxious to explore her sexuality but not with her own aging husband.

Stockstill has a beautiful singing voice, and her duet with Boyd, “Everyday A Little Death” is a heartbreaking revelation that underneath the sexual comedy these are people in pain. Henrik is the play’s bleakest character, and Tierney does admirable work balancing the character’s jaded opinion of the world with a desire to find the kind of the love that he so publicly renounces. Tierney, along with Alicia Hurtado (Fredrika) and Patti Roeder (Madame Armfeldt) in Stephen Sondheim's "A Little Night Music", now at Circle Theatre in Oak Park.Rill, has some of the most difficult music in the show, and while there are times that he could use some more support to stay on key, he does strong work with difficult material.

Fredrika and her grandmother Madame Armfeldt (Patti Roeder) represent the two ends of the time spectrum, as Madame lives in the past, while Fredrika is constantly looking toward the future. Roeder’s solo “Liaisons” could be considered the play’s theme, a meditation on how the affairs of her past have been grow more beautiful with age while the longing to return to them grows more painful. At the end of the play, Madame Armfeldt regrets turning away one of her lovers for giving her a wooden ring, lamenting the lost opportunity for true love. Desirée has a similar epiphany in “Send in the Clowns,” impeccably performed by Hoffman, where she finally exposes her true feelings to Fredrik before time passes them by again. After spending the play trying to recapture the past as a way to fix the present, she takes the leap into a future with Fredrik. When his responsibilities to Anne prevent him from jumping with her, Desirée ends the song with a defeated yet optimistic, “Maybe next year.” Time passes and things change. Things grow with time and they die with time. But perhaps the greatest power of time is the hope that the future brings, healing the wounds of the past and making the present an easier place to live.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Kirk Swenk as Frederik and Jeremy W. Rill as Carl-Magnus in Circle Theatre's "A Little Night Music" by Stephen Sondheim

All images by Bob Knuth.

     

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Review: Tree (Victory Gardens Theater)

  
  

Uncovered secrets create new roots for a Chicago family

     
     

Celeste Williams as Jessalyn in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
Tree
   
Written by Julie Hébert
Directed by Andrea J. Dymond
at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $20-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

What defines a family? Is it common blood? Shared experiences? In Julie Hébert’s Tree, this is the major question South-side Chicagoan Leo (Aaron Todd Douglas) faces when his half-sister Didi Marcantel (Elaine Rivkin) tells him his biological father has died. Didi has come up from Louisiana in hopes of retrieving the letters her father Ray wrote to Leo’s now-senile mother Jessalyn (Celeste Williams) when they were youths, hoping to find an emotional connection to her father’s past that was absent in their present relationship. As Didi tries to latch on to the last bit of family she has left, Leo’s contempt for his white father pushes her away, punishing Didi for her father’s abandonment. Anchored by a stunning central performance from Williams, Tree examines the effect one man had on the people he left behind, and how his death brings them together.

Celeste Williams as Jessalyn and Leslie Ann Sheppard as JJ in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.Hébert’s script combines lush lyricism with realistic, intellectual discourse to create a strong distinction between the emotional experience of Jessalyn remembering her letters with the conflict between Leo and Didi. In an incredibly difficult role, Williams does a complete transformation when she revisits her past, altering her voice and body to suggest a woman considerably younger. Although her exact illness isn’t revealed, Jessalyn shows signs of Alzheimer’s, experiencing the occasional moment of clarity but largely forgetful and confused. There’s a scattered energy to Jessalyn’s older characterization that becomes focused when she remembers Ray, and the audience is transported by Hébert’s rich imagery and romantic prose, making the reality of Jessalyn’s illness all the more heartbreaking. Williams’ performance takes us inside the car where she had her first accident (without a license) and to that all-important lake where Ray snuck into the tree without her looking. We fly and fall with her, and she’s the standout in a production full of stellar performances.

Race relations are a large part of Tree, but they never overshadow the larger theme of family. It reminds me of another great play from this season, Route 66’s Twist Of Water (which reopened this week at the Mercury Theatre), sharing a Chicago setting along with a similar ability to tackle racial and gender issues in that is smart but still emotionally powerful. They’re both concerned with finding a definition of family that goes beyond the traditional ideas, and perhaps most significantly, they’re both very funny. More than anything, these plays are saved from melodrama by the humor the playwrights put in the script. Watching fish-out-of-water Didi try to adapt to Leo’s South side hospitality is consistently amusing, and Rivkin’s sweet, amiable portrayal of the good-natured Didi makes Leo’s lashing out against her especially unfair.

     
Celeste Williams, Aaron Todd Douglas and Elaine Rivkin in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren. Celeste Williams and Aaron Todd Douglas in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Celeste Williams as Jessalyn and Leslie Ann Sheppard as JJ in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren. Elaine Rivkin in a scene from Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Douglas captures the pain that lies underneath Leo’s anger, but his character flaw is that he is constantly jumping to conclusions without all the facts. Didi is trying to connect with her half-brother, the only blood kin she has left, and Leo accuses her of needing to assuage her white liberal guilt. He passes judgments on her lifestyle without any real knowledge about it, but can’t take it when Didi dishes it right back at him. The two performers have wonderful chemistry together, and they aggravate each other so easily it’s easy to see a sibling resemblance. Leo, Didi, and Jessalyn are all looking for a Ray Mercantel that doesn’t exist anymore, and their frustrations push them to react aggressively, both in positive and negative ways. Didi pushes a relationship on Leo, Leo forces Didi away, and Jessalyn – well, you never know what Jessalyn is going to do next.

Elaine Rivkin and Aaron Todd Douglas in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.While the older characters are reeling from Ray’s death, Leo’s daughter JJ (Leslie Ann Sheppard) serves as a witness to the growing instability among them and a voice of reason in the emotional whirlwind of Leo’s home. The consistently wonderful Sheppard gives JJ a cheerful disposition that is immediately welcoming, but she also gives JJ some grit. She doesn’t share her father’s prejudice toward Didi, but when Didi starts snooping around for Ray’s letters, JJ goes into a rage that reveals how protective she is of her fragile father and grandmother.

Andrea J. Dymond directs a deeply moving, incredibly funny production (seriously, Jessalyn gets some amazing one liners) with an integrity in acting and design that elevates Hébert’s script. Jacqueline and Rick Penrod’s set design evokes the title of the play with fanned wooden planks above the actors and a stack of boxes creating a tree trunk through Leo’s home, making Didi’s inspection of the containers a literal dig through her family roots. Charlie Cooper’s lighting evokes the different settings of Jessalyn’s monologues, and beautifully reflects her changing moods, switching from cool blues and warm oranges for her past to stark red for her most extreme moments of confusion and terror. All the elements combine for one powerful examination of the meaning of family, and in the end, family is who will be there for you when times are hardest. Family isn’t blood or experience, it’s compassion.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Celeste Williams, Aaron Todd Douglas and Elaine Rivkin in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

     

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