REVIEW: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (Steppenwolf)

  
  

All’s fair in love and total war

  
  

Woolf-3

   
  
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
   
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf
  
Written by Edward Albee
Directed by
Pam MacKinnon
at
Steppenwolf Downstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through Feb 13  |  tickets: $20-$75  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Don’t go to Steppenwolf’s current production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf expecting histrionics—at least, not at the level of scene chewing wrought by many other productions or in the famous movie with Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor. Director Pam MacKinnon, who brought Edward Albee to Chicago for consultation at the beginning of the cast’s rehearsal, keeps a tight, controlled, and calculated rein on George (Tracy Letts) and Martha’s (Amy Morton) endless war. Theirs is a Cold War that begins casually enough with Martha’s little insults at George and George constantly correcting Martha’s language. Of course, their digs, jibes and strategic one-upmanship quickly escalate to a hot war—a hot war that requires an audience in Honey (Carrie Coon) and Nick (Madison Dirks), newcomers to the university George teaches at. One suspects a hot war is what they’ve wanted all along, no matter what the devastating costs to themselves or how many innocent corpses they leave in their wake.

Woolf-1Watch out, Nick and Honey. Who knew university life in a small town could be so fraught with danger? But George and Martha, bogged down in their own marriage and stifled career prospects, show the newcomers a taste of things to come at New Carthage’s institution of higher learning. George’s lack of advancement in the university’s history department gives Martha plenty of ammunition to assault his manhood; while the sexual accessibility of university wives, give Nick and George plenty of excuse to deprecate the whole notion of marital fidelity or professional advancement according to merit.

Happily, MacKinnon’s deliberate, exacting and controlled direction pays off in spades. The casual, understated and fluid way in which George and Martha debase each other or, from time to time, throw sidelong insults at their guests, practically draws the whole audience into the living room—into George and Martha’s “theater of war.” Only having a drink every time George pours a round would increase the feeling of familiarity with this situation and this couple. Once one is in, one is hooked. The cast almost seamlessly builds the tension to the point of no return. Steppenwolf’s production is within a hair’s breathe of perfection, what with Coon and Dirks freshly backing up old masters Letts and Morton at their seasoned finest.

Don’t be taken in by Steppenwolf’s advertising image for the show: Morton projects a Martha considerably more louche and tipsy on the poster than she ever gets to onstage. Onstage, her Martha, just as she boasts, really can hold her liquor; all the better to keep up controlled, savage verbal attacks as the night worsens. She and Nick clearly play “hump the hostess” for George’s cuckolded come-uppance and professional advantage, Martha’s sex appeal downplayed to a bit of cleavage. Thankfully, what Morton does not downplay, but expertly times, is Martha’s gathering, seething resentment at George. As for Letts, his performance pulls George deeply into himself, to instinctively attack from a defensive position, until his rage over Martha’s humiliation of him in front of Nick and Honey becomes too much.

To watch George’s face flush bright red just before an outburst is to know the depth of Letts’ craft and discipline. One does not–one cannot–dismiss George’s threats, no matter how soft-spoken or tossed off they seem. One takes them all the more seriously and feels all the more uneasy once they’re let loose. I’ve heard some say that this production exposes Martha as the greater monster. Not so. Letts’ George is equally monstrous to anything Martha can dish out—he simply chooses to talk softly while he’s figuring out his next move or his next lacerating remark.

As Honey, Coon does daffy drunk girl to perfection. She can go from silly to pathetic in a nano-second and signify both mindless fun and desperation in Honey’s jokes or interpretive dancing. The most vulnerable of all the characters, Honey easily reflects the damage a truly decadent environment wreaks on the naïve. Too clueless to know what is happening, she can neither oppose nor defend herself against the havoc George and Martha have drawn her and Nick into. Indeed, her abandonment by Nick, once Nick begins to try swimming with the sharks, seems almost a foregone conclusion. Coon earns that pathos and at moments steals the show from the other three.

Indeed, only Dirks reveals some blind spots in his interpretation of Nick. Laying low with Nick’s low-key participation the first act, Dirk’s performance really takes off in the second act, building clear camaraderie with George as he first gains Nick’s confidence, shifting into revenge when George betrays it. But Nick’s intentions become cloudy in the third act when, diminished to the humiliating status of “houseboy,” why Nick chooses to stay and wait out the final round between George and Martha becomes a muddled mystery. Nothing in the script explicitly indicates why. But Dirks has to form a clear motivation for that choice and play it distinctly for the audience or the credibility for Nick and Honey’s presence during the last stage of George and Martha’s total war is lost. It’s a small but critical omission in Dirks’ otherwise sterling performance.

Flaw aside, nothing stops George and Martha’s train to destruction. You’ll find few things more riveting this season than Morton’s depiction of Martha’s emotional devastation or Lett’s hint of sadistic control in the final tableau.

Revisit Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and you’ll see once again how Albee’s masterpiece not only captures the disturbing dynamic by which some couples love/hate each other, but also how skillfully he grafts America’s Cold War game playing onto the portrait of a marriage. Throughout the play George and Martha’s marriage–marriage in general–is on trial. But so are America’s wars by proxy, its fallacious attempts at nation building and its imperialist misadventures. When will we ever learn that, in the end, whatever we call “victory” just doesn’t make up for the body count?

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Woolf-2

 

Artists

Cast

Tracy Letts, Amy Morton, Carrie Coon, Madison Dirks

 

Designers / Authors / Production

Author: Edward Albee
Directed by: Pam MacKinnon
Scenic Design: Todd Rosenthal
Costume Design: Nan Cibula-Jenkins
Lighting Design: Allan Lee Hughes
Sound Design: Michael Bodeen, Rob Milburn
Stage Manager: Malcolm Ewen
Assistant Stage Manager: Deb Styer
  
  

REVIEW: Irving Berlin’s White Christmas (BroadwayChicago)

        
        

Irving Berlin holiday classic receives rich, nostalgic production

        
        

Finale of Irving Berlin White Christmas

  
Broadway in Chicago and Broadway Across America presents
 
   
Irving Berlin’s White Christmas
  
Written by David Ives and Paul Blake
Music by Irving Berlin
Directed by Norb Joerder
at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe (map)
through Jan 2  |  tickets: $25-$98  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Inspired by the 1954 film that itself builds on the 1944 delight “Holiday Inn” (which premiered the title song), Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is unashamedly old-fashioned, aggressively nostalgic, and filled with postwar optimism. How can it not be when the Irving Berlin classic with which it begins and ends is now a essential part of the holiday DNA for most Americans? The production values are vintage too—terrific tap dancing, go-for-broke jubilee choreography, cornball humor, goofy plotting, period-Megan Jimenez, Shannon M. O'Bryan, Denis Lambert, Amanda Paulson – White Christmasperfect costumes from the Eisenhower era, and lots of pretty scene changes. (Who says Broadway shows don’t have scenery anymore? This one packs a thousand glorious illusions passing as set pieces.) This blast from the past is a winter storm we can savor.

Strictly by-the-numbers and comfortably contrived, the plot involves Wallace and Davis, a vaudeville team looking for a new act, who join forces with Betty and Judy Haynes, a sisters duo, to help the guys’ former general draw crowds to his Vermont ski lodge and barn when the winter season is threatened by a total lack of snowfall. It’s serendipity on cue. Of course, all kinds of clever confusion arises over whether the boys will end up in Florida or rehearse their new Broadway show in New England, then whether that inn will be sold to a corporation and, of course, whether each sister will dutifully fall for the vaudeville hoofer of her choice.

It’s all an excuse for such Berlin gems as “Blue Skies” (performed with a bit too much jazzy syncopation for my taste), “I’m Happy,” “I Love a Piano,” “How Deep Is the Ocean?” and, of course, the inexhaustibly evocative title number. They’re a showcase for John Scherer and Denis Lambert as the happy hoofers who fall hard or soft for Amy Bodnar and Shannon M. O’Bryan as the sisters who sing “Sisters.” Everything you loved in the movie you can savor here in three dimensions.

     
Lambert, O'Bryan, Williamson, Peeples with Showgirls - Irving Berlin White Christmas Blue Skies from Irving Berlin White Christmas

Ruth Williamson, as the hard-boiled, Broadway brassy inn manager, combines Thelma Ritter and Alice Ghostley as she peps up every scene with deadpan wisecracks. Erick Devine is lovably crusty as General Waverley (even though the plot goes haywire near the end as he returns to the Army, then reenters retirement for reasons that aren’t worth a second thought). Eleven-year-old Mary Peeples is a perky moppet who was born to play Annie as well as the general’s Shirley Temple-cute granddaughter and will steal a show, if not a scene, if she’s not watched carefully.

The 17-member ensemble resemble so many perpetual-motion machines, singing and dancing their own beautiful blizzard in this Currier and Ives vision of Vermont. (The whole show is like a series of life-size Christmas cards singing enchanting melodies.) The lesser-known Berlin numbers may not be undeservedly neglected but the surefire hits from this totally American composer are absolutely irresistible. This Christmas confection can more than hold its own with A Christmas Carol  (our review ★★★½) and The Nutcracker (review ★★★★), just a few blocks away.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  
Bardner and O'Bryan - from Irving Berlin White Christmas 1944 Christmas Eve Show (2) Irving Berlin White Christmas
Let Me Sing and I'm Happy - Irving Berlin White Christmas Martha Watson and Gen Henry Waverly in snow - Irving Berlin White Christmas Devine as General Henry Waverly - Irving Berlin White Christmas
On the Train to Vermont - Irving Berlin White Christmas

Continue reading

REVIEW: A Christmas Carl (Chicago dell’Arte)

  
  

A Lot of Predictable, a Little Perverse

  
  

A Christmas Carl - Poster

  
Chicago dell’Arte presents
  
A Christmas Carl
  
Created and Directed by Ned Record
at
The RBP Rorschach, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
through Dec 22  |  tickets: $15   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

What is it about formulaic Christmas stories that we return to again and again each holiday season? Does their familiarity comfort and reassure? Is there something in the ritual retelling of Christmas stories that really re-awakens warmth and goodwill? Chicago dell’Arte’s A Christmas Carl, now onstage at Right Brain Project Rorshach, comes across like a new flavored bag of Doritos—it’s still Doritos, but with a different coating than the Cool Ranch or Nacho Cheese varieties. Creator and director Ned Record revamps Charles Dickens’ tale with Tex-Mex flavor but with limited success. The real value of A Christmas Carl is not how closely it adheres to tradition, but in the dippy trips it takes into delightful perversity.

In fact, the production itself seems rather bored with same old Christmas story. Charlene Dickens (Joanna P. Lind) gets stranded in Cleburne, Texas, once her transmission goes out on her way to Nashville. She waits endlessly in Scrooge’s Auto Body Shop, where there are obviously more than a few screws loose. Bob Ratchet (Derek Jarvis) can hardly keep his attention on one line of conversation, let alone the engine block, and Juan (Christopher Thies-Lotito), feigning ignorance of the English language, is hardly decent help. Owner Carl Scrooge (Nick Freed) only paces back and forth from reception to garage, never getting his hands dirty himself and never needing to deliver a “bah, humbug” over giving his employees time off for Christmas day. His flat deadpan drawl more than indicates utter disinterest in holiday merriment or goodwill toward men.

If only the play didn’t lag as much as action in the garage. Charlene’s plans to turn Carl around, by the ritual introduction of the three ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Future, go dreadfully slow and haltingly predictable. Leading Carl through his paces to Christmas redemption would be excruciating if not for the delightfully freakish presence of Fred (Aaron Kirby), the Goth boyfriend of Carl’s sister, Fran (Jessica Record), and a monomaniacal performance artist trained by none other than the ITT Technical Institute.

What saves A Christmas Carl from Christmas death is the triple-espresso shot of perversity in Kirby’s performance. In fact, Fred steals the show. He becomes the center to A Christmas Carl more than Carl, a terribly interesting wrinkle if this play is, indeed, a Christmas story wrought from the heart of Texas. Clearly, then, Cleburne is not exactly Sarah Palin country or, at least, it is not an America that Sarah Palin prefers to portray. Rather, it’s an America that belongs to the freaks. Even the couples’ exercises enacted by Bob and his wife Emily (Holly Portman) take a charmingly flaky detour from the main action and create a playful space in which only their childlike resolutions matter. That development alone has got to be tidings of comfort and joy to some out there.

Would that Record had taken even more chances with Dicken’s staid and over-familiar tale. The result may have been a wild, fresh and new seasonal classic to awaken audiences from the holiday doldrums.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
   
   

 

REVIEW: The Observatory (Viable Theatre Company)

     
    

Treading lightly on show’s darkest themes

     
    

 

The Observatory by Vincent Truman

 
Viable Theatre Company presents
   
The Observatory
  
Written/Directed by Vincent Truman
at
The Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton  (map)
through Dec 18   |  tickets: $12-$15   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

As necessary a play as The Observatory is, far better to consider it a work in progress than an actual finished product. Viable Theatre Company has mounted it at the Charnel House where its very stark and simple surroundings reflect the writing exactly—a great idea in need of further in-depth development.

Playwright/Director Vincent Truman and assistant directly Angela Jo Strohm bring us the tale of David (Colin Fewell) and Sally (Kasey O’Brien), a young married couple renting out their attic for sorely needed extra cash. The thing is, they rent it out to the government in order to create an “observatory,” a place from which David is contracted to keep eye on a stranger held in detention as part of the War on Terror. Imprisoned in solitary The Observatory by Vincent Truman 2confinement at an unknown location, a 3-D hologram image of the detainee is to be beamed into their attic for David to watch and await a confession. CIA program director Victor (Vincent Truman) reassures David there will be no torture–but David is under contract to not disclose anything he has observed with anyone, including his wife. Also, Sally must never enter the attic when the hologram is being beamed in. Sally and David accept these conditions in anticipation of hundreds of thousands of dollars in return.

Sally already voices qualms about the ethics of David quitting his teaching job and becoming an observer but her consternation really begins once curiosity gets the better of her and she enters the new observatory when the hologram is on. There, she finds David watching a young and attractive female prisoner, Marissa (Kate Lane). From then on, their marriage deteriorates due to Sally’s jealousy and David’s inability to keep his stultifying job as an observer from overtaking his entire life. David’s sexual interest in Marissa grows and their relationship intensifies once he discovers that, from some technological snafu, they can actually communicate with each other.

Given that America has been sucked into a moral morass over torture and indefinite detention, a hellhole from which the Obama administration will not extricate us or even ameliorate, a play like The Observatory couldn’t be timelier. However, Truman’s writing focuses more on the sexual interest between David and Marissa rather than taking bigger risks and digging deeper into his dangerous material. Private Bradley Manning, currently held at Quantico, VA for delivering thousands of government documents to Wikileaks, now shows signs of mental deterioration due to the same solitary confinement conditions that Marissa endures during the play. Lane’s intensity in her portrayal of Marissa is laudable but lacks nuance, given the psychological stress solitary confinement works on the human mind.

Likewise, the play leaves the rest of its characters functioning at a 2-dimensional level and its resolution also strikes exceedingly simplistic moral chords. It’s almost as if the playwright had a failure of nerve, willing to open up torture’s sadistic can of worms but too scared to plunge in. The result is a light skate on top of The Observatory’s frozen surface, where we can still imagine ourselves distant and untouched by the ugliness beneath.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

  
 

Continue reading

REVIEW: Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer

  
  

The Queer Meaning of Christmas: Always Be Yourself

  
  

Rudolph finale by David as Joan

  
Hell in a Handbag Productions presents
   
Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer
   
Book/Lyrics by David Cerda 
Music by
David Cerda w/ Scott Lamberty
Directed by
Derek Czaplewski
at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark (map)
through Jan 1  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Hell In a Handbag Productions have run their queerlicious holiday spoof, Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer for 13 years, yet it’s Christmas theme could not be more current or relevant than if it were written yesterday. Directed by Derek Czaplewski, this Santa Claus (Michael Hampton) is as Scrooge as they come, running the North Pole like a sweatshop. His terrorized elf population scrambles for job security since he’s outsourced most of the toy manufacturing to India. To generate extra income, Santa cynically develops a series of reality TV Mrs. Claus loses her balance. by David as Joanshows for NPN (North Pole Network). Sam the Snowman (Christopher Carpenter) lays out the whole scene with casual and realistic world-weariness, just right for this particular recessionary season.

Into this milieu, Jane (Danni Smith) and Tom Donner (Chad) give birth to Rudolph (Alex Grelle), a sweet little reindeer with an instinctual love for feminine attire. Fresh from the womb, Rudolph can already spot Chanel and Prada on other women and lusts in his heart to wear them himself. But mom and dad fear gender non-conformity just won’t go over well in the gossipy and economically strapped environs of Christmastown. So, they force Rudolph into overalls and trot him out to the reindeer games to put a little butch into his act.

The big butch of the reindeer games, Coach Comet (David Besky), uses his position to put the moves on his young reindeer charges. But, like any classic closet case, he – like everyone else – rejects Rudolph when his unstoppable femme side emerges. While reviling base hypocrisy is de rigueur element for LGBTQ comedy, Hell in a Handbag’s spry and professional cast keeps to the situation fresh, the jokes well-timed and humanely on message. David Cerda’s humorous script holds up fabulously well; it helps that the original Christmas cartoon is also about being yourself, no matter what societal pressures deny who and what you are. Cerda and crew boost the original cartoon with a ton of salacious queer fun and Brigitte Ditmars’ choreography makes the most of a tight stage at Mary’s Attic.

     
Trailer Trash Barbie by David as Joan Meet Coach Comet by David as Joan
The Dragbeast! The Abominable Dragbeast (David Cerda, center) massacre's a Lady Gag_0007 North Pole Smackdown by David as Joan

Rudolph loses the town’s support but gains a reindeer girlfriend, Clarice (Jennifer Shine), who regales the audience with how HOT his red hose make her. Then there’s Rudolph’s ally Herbie, the elf who wants to be a dentist, who Dan Hickey executes with nostalgic and dorky perfection. Once this pair make it to the Island of Misfit Toys, the audience not only gets to revel in Chad’s exact portrayal of Charlie-in-the-Box, but also the Half-Naked Cowboy (Chad Ramsey), Trailer Trash Barbie (Terry McCarthy) and the Choo-Choo Train (Barbara Figgins) with square wheels.

That Cerda, as the Abominable Drag Beast, tries her grab at fame in a Gaga-esque meat dress, while Ed Jones goes beyond the beyond as Santa’s drunken wife, puts the cherry and nuts on top of Hell in a Handbag’s confection. It’s so bad it’s good for you. But most of all, for all its celebration of pervy practices, Rudolph, the Red-Hosed Reindeer restores a little innocent sweetness to a holiday made hard, jaded and meaningless by rampant commercialism. Always be yourself—that’s the best Christmas message I’ve heard in a long time and something meant to last the whole year round.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Christmastown! by David as Joan

Continue reading

REVIEW: The Pirates of Penzance (The Hypocrites)

  
  

The Pirates go promenade with delightful results

  
  

Ryan Bourque, Shawn Pfautsch, Zeke Sulkes, Doug Pawlik, Matt Kahler in Hypocrites Pirates of Penzance

  
The Hypocrites present
  
The Pirates of Penzance
      
Music/Libretto by Arthur Sullivan and W.S. Gilbert
Directed by
Sean Graney
Music Direction/Arrangements by
Kevin O’Donnell 
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through Jan 30  |  tickets: $28  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Sean Graney has shown that he can create provocative dramas, boisterous comedies, and heartwarming children’s shows, and with The Pirates of Penzance he brings his unique voice to opera. Staging the show in promenade, Graney puts the audience on stage with the actors, giving viewers a brand new perspective of the Gilbert and Sullivan classic. Reveling in the absurdity of the plot – the courtship of Major General Stanley’s (Matt Kahler) daughters by the worst pirates ever – Graney applies the same hyper-silliness that has characterized his recent Court productions. Self-awareness, slapstick, Robert McLean in Pirates of Penzance - Photo by Paul Metreyeonand sight gags have become the major weapons in Graney’s comedic arsenal, but the addition of music forces a focus from the director that brings all the elements together in harmony.

Also serving as the pit, the actors give O’Donnell’s acoustic arrangements the breezy summer vibe of musicians like Jason Mraz or She & Him, while still being able to switch into classical mode when needed. Modernizing Sullivan’s music works well with Graney’s concept, which reimagines the pirates as a gang of man-children in too-short shorts, shrunken undershirts, and high top sneakers. This is a group of men that would rather sip Frescas and riff on the ukulele than pillage and plunder, and the music reflects that carefree attitude in a way the traditional score can’t.

I believe promenade staging is a major part of live theatre’s evolution. In a world where entertainment is available at the click of a mouse, removing the fourth wall and placing the audience on stage creates an experience that can’t be streamed or downloaded. It is a thrill unique to the theater, giving the observer unparalleled freedom to interact with an environment that is usually seen from a distance. There are seats for those that would choose to stay inactive, but the real fun happens when you find yourself surrounded by a gang of people in tutus and boxer shorts strumming guitars and singing four part harmonies. Seemingly minimal actions like moving off a bench to allow for an actor’s entrance force people out of their seats and into the actors’ world, and a sense of community builds among the audience as they collectively await the next surprise. That sense of unpredictability is hard to find, especially in a show as well known as Pirates of Penzance.

     
Matt Kahler, Christine Stulik - Hypocrites Pirates of Penzance Becky Poole, Emily Casey, Matt Kahler, Shawn Pfautsch, Ryan Bourque, Nikki Klix - Pirates of Penzance

After turning 21 and leaving his servitude to the Pirates of Penzance, Frederic (Zeke Sulkes) rejoins civilization and falls in love with Mabel (Christine Stulik), the beautiful daughter of a Major General. As Frederic’s swashbuckling comrades are paired off with Mabel’s sisters, the Pirate King (Robert McLean) and Ruth (Stulik), the haggard ship nurse, conspire to keep Frederic a member of their crew. Stulik gives an outstanding performance in her dual roles, showcasing a clear voice that stays strong over a wide range. Her combination of vocals with strong comedic timing and physicality is reminiscent of 90’s SNL members Cheri Oteri and Ana Gasteyer, but they likely lack Stulik’s instrumental prowess. Kahler’s Major General has the production’s most impressive number, performing the character’s famous tongue-twisting solo backed by the entire ensemble. Amazing diction and control are required, and Kahler hits his consonants with pointed precision, racing to the song’s heated conclusion.

Each of the actors involved in this production is given an enormous amount of work to do: playing, singing, and dancing, all while trying to remember blocking in a space filled with audience members. That the production moves smoothly without a single hitch is a testament to the effort put in by the entire creative team, spearheaded by the consistently innovative Graney. It may not look or sound like any Gilbert and Sullivan opera you’ve ever seen, but it will probably be the most fun.

  
 
Rating: ★★★½
     
  

Nikki Klix, Emily Casey, Becky Poole - The Hypocrites Pirates of Penzance

  
  

Continue reading

REVIEW: The Legend of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (CIC)

  
  

Testing the limits of holiday schlock

  
  

Legend of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

  
Chemically Imbalanced Comedy presents
  
The Legend of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet
  
Written by Marz Timms and Angie McMahon
Directed by Josie Dykas
Chemically Imabalanced Theater, 1422 W. Irving Park (map)
through Jan 16  |  tickets: $12   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

As an American, it may be hard to imagine Christmas without that magnanimous bearded man who is the reason for the season. No, not Jesus. Santa.

But, as surprising as this may sound, other cultures don’t have Santa Claus. Instead, they have other characters that award the good and punish the bad.

In The Netherlands, the giver of gifts is Sinterklaas, also known as Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children. This tall, regal saint places gifts of fruit in good Dutch children’s shoes on the evening of Dec. 5. Sounds pretty much like Christmas so far, right? Well, this Sinterklaas character also has a faithful African servant named Zwarte Piet, who is often depicted in popular Dutch culture as a white man dressed in black face. Not so merry anymore, is it?

This kind of nonsensical, overtly racist foreign tradition is rife with material for a wonderful satire that speaks to America’s own wacky traditions and treatment of race. What amazing source material for a hilarious and poignant holiday play, right?

Unfortunately, in the hands of Chemically Imbalanced Comedy (CIC), The Legend of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is as lame as a Christmas duck. There’s little story, the comedy is stale and the performances are weak. It’s one of those productions that probably started off as a brilliant idea but failed miserably in the execution.

The hour-long play tells the tale of Sinterklaas (Jeff Taylor) and Zwarte Piet (Chris Redd). Sinterklaas is a fairly established saint who is attempting to spread the tradition of gifting good Dutch children with fruit while punishing bad Dutch children with a trip to Spain. He goes to the local court one day and prevents the incarceration of Zwarte Piet by purchasing him. The two form a tenuous friendship.

After being harassed by a local gang of school children, Sinterklaas pays one of the kids a visit. When his parents notice him missing, they go on a hunt for the kidnapper. In the meantime, the gang of children is plotting to drive all the adults out of the city so they can rule the town. Did I mention this is an hour-long play?

Writers Angela McMahon (who is the theatre’s founder) and Marz Timms have tried to cram too much plot into this tiny production. What results is an overwrought mess void of intriguing characters or any relatable relationships. This completely obliterates the hope of any real comedy, as generally the best humor arises out of situations with characters we empathize with. Instead, we get a few bits and gags, many of which feel forced or worn. (Can we have a comedy with a black man that doesn’t force him to wear a dress?)

At no point does the audience really get to know any character. Instead, we are left to connect with cardboard cutouts who seem incapable of executing more than one trick. This is both a shortcoming of the writing as well as the acting. Rob Palmerin as the leader of the Dutch gang doesn’t shift at all from loud and angry. Taylor as Sinterklaas is flat and emotionless. He’s like a big gift-giving robot.

Finally, the entire show feels slapdash. Actors talk at one another, as if struggling to recite lines from memory. Musical numbers are weakly sung. This may improve during the run, granted the company amps up its rehearsal schedule.

CIC is capable of doing great work (see my review for The Book of Liz ★★★★). The Legend of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, however, comes across as Christmas pandering. It’s as if the company scrambled to get a holiday play on the table to cash in on the Christmastime trend. Sinterklaas would certainly be displeased – no fruit for you!

  
  
Rating: ★½