Review: Rantoul and Die (American Blues Theater)

     
     

White-Trash angst in central Illinois…..a dark comedy

     
     

Francis Guinan and Kate Buddeke in American Blues Theater's 'Rantoul and Die'. Photo by Paul Marchese

  
American Blues Theater presents
   
Rantoul and Die
  
Written Mark Roberts
Directed by Erin Quigley
at Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater (map)
through May 22  | 
tickets: $32-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Surely few things are more artistically satisfying than watching Francis Guinan on stage in full-frontal, scene-stealing, emotional-meltdown mode. The man can make knocking over a chair resonate with the power of a Shakespearian soliloquy. Okay, maybe that’s a little hyperbolic. But not much. Guinan is one of Chicago’s MVP’s of the theatrosphere, and he’s in excellent form with American Blues Theater’s staging of Rantoul and Die. As is the rest of the stellar cast in playwright Mark Roberts’ profane study of white trash angst in the flatland middle of nowhere.

Kate Buddeke and Cheryl Graeff in American Blues Theater's 'Rantoul and Die' by Mark Roberts. Photo by Paul MarcheseAt roughly 110 miles south of Chicago and half an hour or so outside of Champaign, Rantoul is the flyover territory of flyover territory. In Roberts’ largely plotless, utterly tasteless and immensely entertaining dark comedy, the denizens of Rantoul are likewise the sort of folk who one tends to overlook if not outright avoid. These are a breed of loud, ignorant mouth-breathers to whom political correctness is a foreign concept. They refer to the developmentally disabled as "mongoloid retards." The closest they get to fine dining is stopping in at the local Dairy Queen instead of using the drive-thru.

But this group is also, in the four person ensemble directed by Erin Quigley, oddly likable. They may be at the bottom of society’s ladder but on that lowest of rungs, there is a singular integrity. These are people who say precisely what they think – the filters that most of us use to smooth out the rough edges of our uglier inclinations are absent in this group. There’s an honesty to their no-class brawling and profanity, perverse to be sure, but also unvarnished and unafraid. When Rallis, as pasty-faced a middle-age mope as you’ll ever encounter, fails in his attempt at suicide, his best friend Gary (Guinan) gives him a harsh dose of extreme tough love in lieu of sympathy:

“Suicide is like jerking off in a salad bar,” Gary berates, “There’s no regard for the people left behind.” From there, his get-a-grip lecture really gets profane.

The woefully depressed Rallis, it must be noted, is played by Alan Wilder. For those keeping track, that means that half the cast of Rantoul and Die is comprised of Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members. Wilder and Guinan have as long history, and their scenes together here have an ease, a depth and an effortless authenticity that only comes from years of working together. The women in the cast – Kate Buddeke as Rallis’ unhappy wife Debbie and Cheryl Graeff as Callie, Debbie’s manager down at the DQ – come from the storied ranks of the American Blues Theater. Together, the foursome is toxically effective.

Plenty happens in Roberts’ atmospheric tale, including a shooting that leaves one character brain dead (“Summabitch has deviled ham in his head”) about 40 minutes into the 90-minute piece. But plot isn’t the point here. Roberts’ peculiar, pungent brand of storytelling isn’t about a conventional arc so much as it is a portrait of a very particular demographic (although to be sure, each of the four characters are idiosyncratic individuals more than representatives of a type.)

     
Francis Guinan and Alan Wilder in American Blues Theater's 'Rantoul and Die' by Mark Roberts. Photo by Paul Marchese Francis Guinan and Kate Buddeke

The play works because the dialogue is so barbed-wire sharp and delivered with such deceptively effortless agility by Quigley’s ensemble. The filthy blue-collar rants of Debbie, Callie, Gary and Rallis are capsules of comedy as nasty and black as the black plague. Clearly, Rantoul is no place for those with a low tolerance for profanity, gruesomely violent imagery or extraordinarily vulgar sexual references.

As Rallis, Wilder is a quavering muddle of a whipped porch dog of a man, haplessly clinging to a wife who is beyond over him. As Rallis’ exasperated, long-out-of-love spouse, Buddeke is an evolving mixture of ruthlessness and regret. She also makes it clear that Debbie is a woman who is lonely and frustrated – and surprisingly vulnerable under all her toughness. Which brings us to Graeff, as the unnervingly cheerful Dairy Queen manager. She’s got a second act monologue that is both hair-raising in its horror-porn narrative and a sprightly testimony to the power of positive thinking and a sunny can-do attitude.

Given the lack of a plot and the jaw-dropping crudeness of the dialogue, you wouldn’t want Rantoul and Die to fall into the hands of amateurs. It takes a seasoned, top-tier group of artists to pull of something this tasteless with such brutal honesty. This production has that. One can only hope we see more of these ABT/Steppenwolf hybrids in the future.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Francis Guinan and Alan Wilder in American Blues Theater's 'Rantoul and Die' by Mark Roberts. Photo by Paul Marchese

 

All photos by Paul Marchese

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REVIEW: It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph! (American Blues Theater)

  
  

Feel-good theater with a sincere conscience

  
  

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American Blues Theater presents
   
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!
   
Written by Philip Van Doren Stern
Directed by
Marty Higginbotham
at
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $32-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

“There’s enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” That comment on the relativity of wealth is just one of many astonishing déjà vu moments in this old-Its A Wonderful Life - American Blues - Montage picturefashioned 1944 “live radio” broadcast of a soon-to-be-released Hollywood Christmas classic directed by the great Frank Capra. (That 1946 film, of course, went on to become, after Dickens’ parable and the Nativity, the most beloved Christmas story that America ever gave the world.)

Now it’s a worthy Chicago Christmas celebration in its own right. American Blues Theater gifts us with a pitch-perfect recreation of WABT’s Christmas Eve presentation of the story of one man’s salvation from suicide by a clumsy angel who wants to win his wings. This powerful blast from the past is performed in impeccably accurate 40s wigs and costumes by an unimprovable cast of Chicago pros at the collective peak of their careers. It’s feel-good theater with a conscience, not to mention a sing-along before and during the radio show and commercial jingles for local enterprises.

The story–about a bad bank (and slumlord/banker, Mr. Potter) that doesn’t “trust” or invest in its struggling community of Bedford Falls but is ready for a foreclosure whenever it needs a cash infusion–has never seemed so contemporary. An embattled savings and loan director, George Bailey (a bumptious and passionate Kevin R. Kelly) and his adoring and empowering Mary (Gwendolyn Whiteside) clearly make a difference in the world and for the folks around them–even, or especially, when times are hard. That’s when folks without health insurance or with heavy mortgages and bills need all the safety nets their neighbors can provide.

This difference that he makes, of course, George foolishly doubts and denies–until Clarence (incredibly deft John Mohrlein, who ranges from klutzy Clarence to vicious Mr. Kirby at the drop of a script page) shows him how Bedford Falls would have degenerated into Pottersville if George had never been born. The ripple effect, which means that no man is an island, has never been more gloriously depicted than in this reverse “Christmas Carol,” where Ebenezer/George discovers how his absence would be even more destructive to the world than his presence.

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All of this wonderful “Capra-corn” is presented in a seamless 90 minutes, with piano accompaniment by Austin Cook and ingenious Foley effects by Shawn J. Goudie. The nine-member ensemble deliver crowd noises, sound effects, songs and, above all, sincerity. The result is an authentic radio-days recreation that could pass for the real thing, but, even better, works perfectly as a play. It’s a wonderful show!

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

 

 

  
  

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American Blues announces 25th-Anniversary Season

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announces its

* 25th-Anniversary Season Productions *

 

Includes the regional premiere of Rantoul & Die by Mark Roberts (“Two and a Half Men”) and the new annual Blue Ink Playwriting Contest.

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Pictures from most recent production, critically-acclaimed Tobacco Road

November 26 – December 31, 2010

   
  It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!
   
  Directed by Marty Higganbotham
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Featuring ABT Ensemble members Kevin Kelly, Ed Kross, John Mohrlein and Gwendolyn Whiteside
   
  From the original director and Ensemble that brought this holiday tradition to Chicago in 2004.  Join the American Blues family as we take you back to a 1940s radio broadcast of Frank Capra’s holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, with live Foley sound effects, an original score, and a stellar cast of seven that bring the entire town of Bedford Falls to life.  From the moment you walk through the doors, you will be transported back to the Golden Age of Radio, and experience the story of George Bailey like never before.  Critics called this production “perfect Christmas theater” and “first class holiday fare.”

 

March 2011

   
  American Blues – Collected One Acts
   
  by Tennessee Williams 
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Directed by Dennis Zacek, Steve Scott, Brian Russell, Damon Kiely and Heather Meyers
   
  This one-night benefit performance celebrates American playwright Tennessee Williams’ 100th birthday.  These five short plays were selected by Williams’ in the rarely produced 1948 collection entitled “American Blues” to showcase his commitment to the blue-collar worker.  ABT is thrilled to work with directors who have made significant contributions to the success and livelihood of the Blues’ Ensemble theater throughout the 25 years.  ABT will announce the winner of the first annual “Blue Ink” Playwriting prize at this event.

 

April 15 – May 29, 2011

   
  Rantoul & Die
   
  Written by Mark Roberts i/a/w Stephen Eich and Don Foster
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Directed by Erin Quigley
Featuring ABT Ensemble members Kate Buddeke, Cheryl Graeff, and Lindsay Jones.  With guest artists Steppenwolf Ensemble members Francis Guinan and Alan Wilder.
   
  From the writer and executive producer of “Two and a Half Men” comes a new play with four of the funniest, ugliest,  and most heartbreakingly real characters ever, all crammed together in a grimy little world that makes the local Dairy Queen and Dante’s Inferno seem one and the same.  The Hollywood reporter calls Rantoul & Die “original and devastatingly funny!” Regional premiere.

 

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   from Tobacco Road  (our review ★★★)
   

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REVIEW: Tobacco Road (American Blues Theater)

Exposing the underbelly of American poverty

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American Blues Theater presents
   
Tobacco Road
   
Written by Jack Kirkland
Directed by Cecilie Keenan
at Richard Christiansen Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
thru June 20th  |  tickets: $32  |  more info

American Blues Theater’s production of Tobacco Road is like the very best kind of church. It’s the kind of experience that leaves one in a reverent state, even more aware of the plight of poverty in our nation as it still exists. The play is every bit as relevant today as it was when it was first presented in 1932.

31266_399309783929_90764368929_4039607_4702192_n Written by Jack Kirkland, based on the novel “Tobacco Road,” by Erskine Caldwell, is a stark and real look at the farmer supplanted by industrialism and left literally to starve on his own land.

At last I have seen a production of this play that stays true to the core of the novel, a very different take than John Ford’s 1941 film of the same name. The film was quite oddly played for laughs, and thankfully the production at American Blues Theater plays it for what it is: a moving and thorough description of poverty, ignorance, and superstition. During the first act, there was laughter from the audience, but the actors commanded, and by the end of the second act, the house was silent. The destruction of a family never fully realized was complete and there was nothing funny about it.

Directed with a strong and gentle hand by Cecilie Keenan, Tobacco Road shows us the unraveling of the white immigrant farmer through the magnifying glass of a modern world. Set in Georgia, lack of education and religious superstition are given center stage as we look at the near indigenous generation in the aftermath of the American industrial revolution. Keenan remains incredibly steady with a kind of driving force as she asks the question about the almost-indigenous whites in this country as to whether or not we can support them as they are. The director brings a fresh look at the immigrant, the white farmer, a new generation born here without choice, taking on the family farm without question. There is a sense of the tribal here that is clear; the bringing of cultural belief into a system of growing disregard for it’s heritage. Keenan lets us feel uncomfortable, and for a moment we laugh at ourselves, our own roots, and discover we are not very far removed from it’s origin. And then it gets serious. While, for reasons I cannot devise, this play is often thought funny, it simply isn’t. There is nothing ultimately humorous about starvation, bank seizures, or the kind of blind faith in religion that drives a family to ruin. However, it is only by this faith that the Lester family in Tobacco Road are diverted from crime. This is a deep and riveting idea that keeps these people on their land, without food, and unwilling to break the law to eat.

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Jeeter Lester, patriarch of the Lester family, is played by Dennis Cockrum with a quickness and lightness, never giving over to the maudlin, carrying this piece with a smooth energy and pace. It is through this character that we find the horrifying desperate measures of the impoverished, and we watch as he takes his daughter Pearl, beautifully played by Laura Coover hostage, in a final attempt at salvation.

Carmen Roman plays Ada, Jeeter’s wife, with the angry intensity of a woman who is starving, but clings to the very ideas that are coming through by way of industrialism. Her dress is faded and torn and she is worried she will be buried in rags, even while she longs for snuff to abate her hunger. Roman approaches this role with a hard flat consistency; a depiction of extreme hardship with humanity at it’s core. This is a woman who will protect young women from the men who bring harm. She sees how wrong these circumstance and conditions are and fights to her last breath to right them. Roman is a lion in this role.

Dude Lester, played by Matthew Brumlow, is only sixteen years old in Erskine’s novel. While Lester played this role with an unexpected wisdom and depth along with a loony sort of aplomb, he is far older than a teen. This is important because he ends up married to Bessie, played with appropriate efficiency and without pathos, by Kate Buddeke, a Christian preacher of a kind, who is thirty-nine years old. It is here that Erskine brings us the starkest of realities in the deep South. Bessie announces that God has approved this marriage and a license is purchased, the poorest of nuptials offered. This is no love story, but one of gross predator upon child that the script  doesn’t depict well. In the novel, Bessie has a pig’s nose; in looking at her, we are looking straight into her nostrils. The prosthetics by Steve Key, while admirable indeed, were not as fully realized as they could be. Even in a small house, they were not played out to the full extent needed to be effective. The work is very fine, but this is not film, and we do not have the benefit of close-ups.

31266_399309808929_90764368929_4039610_552485_nEllie Mae Lester, played by Gwendolyn Whiteside, is the heart of this piece. Born with a harelip, she is the young woman longing, damaged, beset, starving, and without typical beauty, frightened by the prospect of life without a husband for survival. Whiteside brings and eerie illness to this role. She writhes and floats, her physical command is impressive. She sits behind flat eyes, staring at a world that hates her on sight and she mourns.

I have rarely seen makeup so well done. Again, from Steve Key, the dirt, the squalor is incredibly smooth and believable. This is difficult to achieve, and the makeup is nearly a character in this piece, as it brings the very tone and color to a setting so necessary as to make this look into reality complete.

Tobacco Road brings us poverty as it is in the United States. Under this unwavering direction, we never get to look away from it’s crush of human life and spirit. I have spent time in Georgia, and this misery is still in play, every bit as striking as it is presented in this piece. This is theatre that does not seek to entertain, but to motivate. The director is Georgia born, and with her insight we leave the theatre informed about unspeakable living conditions that we never talk about, rarely see, and have made little attempt to repair as a nation.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
 

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2009 Chicago Christmas Theater

Christmas Show Round-Up

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By Barry Eitel

With all those holiday shows out in Chicago right now, it’s hard to decide what to see on top of all the shopping and avoiding extended family. And there is something for everyone out there, from Dickensian classics to ones celebrating the seedier side of December. This season has seen a fairly controversial Christmas on the Chicago theatre scene. For one, there is the on-going feud between American Theatre Company and American Blues Theatre, both of which are simultaneously visiting the village of Bedford Falls with “radio” productions of It’s a Wonderful Life. Just a bit awkward. And then there is the whole Civic Opera Christmas Carol fiasco, where producer/ex-convict Kevin Von Feldt promised a cavalcade of stars and then the whole project somehow fell through. Not to worry, though. There is plenty of goodwill towards man out there to keep you entertained until January.

Luckily for you, the elves at Chicago Theatre Blog have put together a Holiday Theatre Guide to find the perfect show for you. So bust out the coffee and pumpkin pie, and enjoy our sleigh ride through the holiday theatre season.

IF YOU’RE IN TO LONG-STANDING TRADITIONS

Go see the Goodman’s Christmas Carol (★★★½). The show has 32 years behind it and the list of actors who have played past Scrooges reads like a Hall of Fame for Chicago actors. This year’s version has a nice mix of the time-honored and the refreshing. Larry Yando does a remarkable job as Scrooge, bringing out new facets of the usually stiff character. Most of the production in terms of design has not changed over the years, but it still gets results emotionally (and financially). Even without overhauling the dusty script or design, Bill Brown’s strikingly honest production can melt even the most cynical Scrooges in the audience (our review here).

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IF YOU DON’T MIND TRAVELING TO INDIANA

Then The Christmas Schooner at Theatre at the Center (★★★★) is the show for you. Once usual fare at the now-deceased Bailiwick Arts Center, the show has moved on to its new home in Munster, Indiana. The Theatre at the Center production revels in furthering the orchestrations and design. Called the “most Midwestern” of the Christmas shows out there, the musical tells the tale of 19th Century German immigrants, Christmas trees, and a ship carrying very important holiday cargo. With the vast amount of Equity actors and Christmas cheer, The Christmas Schooner is worth the trip (our review here).

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IF YOU’RE A FAN OF ROCK OPERAS

You should see the musical stylings in The Snow Queen  (★★★), the annual Christmas show at Victory Gardens. Adapted by Frank Galati from a Hans Christian Anderson story, this little musical tells the story of a girl battling an evil snow queen in order to rescue her friend. There’s puppets, live music, and plenty of reindeer. If you like your Christmas carols with a little more guitar and a little less pipe organ, you should head on down to Victory Gardens to catch this gem (our review here).

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IF YOU LOVE SPECTACLE

Then check out Redmoon’s Winter Pageant (★★½). The famously choreography-and-spectacle-oriented company’s foray into holiday shows is a wonder to behold. The show boasts a breakneck pace and very little dialogue, so it is sure to delight the entire family. With their focus on magical theatrics, Redmoon have created a show that celebrates what we love about winter (our review here).

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IF YOU HATE CHRISTMAS SHOWS

You should take a look at A Red Orchid Theatre’s A Very Merry Unauthorized Scientology Pageant (★★★).  Or take a look at the production going on at Next Theatre (★★½) in Evanston. Either way, you’ll enjoy these children acting out the history and theory of Scientology, as dictated by L. Ron Hubbard. And most likely, you’ll be a little frightened. Your inner cynic, however, will love the fact that children are pulling off this juicy satire about one of the world’s most lucrative religions (our reviews here and here).

IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR A SHOW UNDER 90 MINUTES

Miracle on 34th Street (★★★½) presented by Porchlight Music Theatre could be the show for you. Taking place at the Theatre Building Chicago, this adaptation is not really a straight musical besides a select number of Christmas carols. Through condensing the most memorable section of the classic 1947 film, director L. Walter Stearns comes in at a kid-friendly 80 minutes. Even with this abridged adaptation, you’ll be reminded why you fell in love with the story in the first place (our review here).

IF YOU’RE JEWISH

There’s always the snarky Whining in the Windy City: Holiday Edition, the one-woman show at the Royal George featuring the sarcastic Jackie Hoffman. She plays the Grandmama in The Addams Family  (review★★★)  and rants in this show on Mondays, her off-nights. Hoffman whines about children, her current role at the Oriental, and, especially, the holidays, Chanukah or otherwise. It all makes for a pretty cathartic Monday night.

IF YOU WANT TO TAKE A TRIP TO BEDFORD FALLS

Than two routes are available to you. You could either see American Theatre Company’s It’s A Wonderful Life: The Radio Play (★★★) or American Blues Theatre (comprised of many former ATC ensemble members) present It’s A Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!  Even though one does have an exclamation point in the title, both are well-done and feature decent performances and live radio sound effects. Yet both have their subtle differences, ABT relying more heavily on music and the charm of the Biograph Theatre, while ATC sticks a bit closer to the time period. Both stage/radio adaptations capture the charm and sentimentality of Frank Capra’s original film (our review here).

IF YOU’VE HAD A CRAPPY SEASONAL JOB

Than you’ll identify with Mitchell Fain, who stars in Theater Wit’s one-man show The Santaland Diaries (★★★). A stage adaptation of David Sedaris’ delightfully subversive essay of the same name, the production follows the adventure of Fain as he works at Macy’s as the elf Crumpet. This is not a straight reading of Sedaris’ work. Fain brings his own personality to the play and inserts his own stories, making this quite a different experience than just reading the essay, like all good stage adaptations (our review here).

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IF YOU’RE NOSTLAGIC FOR STOP-MOTION ANIMATION

You might want to take a look at Annoyance Theatre’s live action version of Rankin /Bass’ 1964 television special, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (★★★½). Surprisingly, Annoyance does a faithful translation for the stage, considering they’re known for their destruction of anything sentimental (the show is running alongside Cockette’s: A Christmas Spectacular). With the music and characters of the beloved original, this Rudolph is meant to enchant theatergoers from 1 to 92 (our review here).

Although there are only a few days before Santa comes around, there are still plenty of options offered by the bounteous Chicago theatre scene. Don’t be fooled into thinking this guide presents everything out there, either. For some other offerings, check the review listing on the side.