Theater Wit opens smart performance space in Lakeview

Architect Richard_Kasemsarn (photo by Dick Smith) Architect Richard Kasemsarn with the plan of Theater Wit. (Photo by Dick Smith.)

 

Theater Wit: Chicago’s newest performance space opens

 

By Leah A. Zeldes

"It’s jaw-droppingly different," says Jeremy Wechsler, artistic director of Theater Wit, about his troupe’s new home.

After 16 months of a $1.3-million joists-out renovation, the one-time post office adjoining Theatre Building Chicago is now the sparkling new Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. (map), a dynamic new multi-performance space. The building, most recently Bailiwick Arts Centre, still has a few i’s to dot and t’s to cross before the city of Chicago grants its Public Amusements Venue license. Wechsler expects it in mid- Theater Wit lobby (photo by Joel Wanek) May; for now, Wit is running its inaugural play, Spin (our review ★★★), on a "suggested donations" basis. Valet parking isn’t in place yet, either, but for the time being, Wit has arranged free parking in the lot behind Cooper’s restaurant across the street.

The building now houses three 99-seat black-box theaters, providing a new showcase for intimate local productions.

"This is a size of theater that didn’t exist," Wechsler says. "There were (too small) 70-seat theaters, in which you could never turn a profit on a show, and (too expensive) 150-seat theaters … in which you could never turn a profit on a show. I really wanted this size of theater for myself."

Along with Wechsler’s Theater Wit company, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble, Shattered Globe Theatre and Stage Left Theatre will share the space as resident troupes, contributing work to the building and using about 75 percent of the performance time, with the remainder available for rental. In the fall, once all the theaters are up and running, Wit will introduce a flex-pass arrangement for tickets to all productions.

Architect Richard Kasemsarn explains that the theaters are cleverly separated by dressing rooms to create easy backstage access and keep sound from bleeding from one to the other. They are also insulated from exterior noise, save for occasional seepage through the brick wall from the adjoining Theatre Building. New metal joists support a variety of lighting configurations.

Theater Wit lobby (photo credit: Joel Wanek) One of the three theaters will feature flexible seating, not yet installed. Seats in the other two, salvaged from a Bolingbrook high-school auditorium, are surprisingly wide and comfortable, and they’re spaced with reasonable leg room, although their incline and offset don’t quite keep tall people from blocking your sight lines.

Theater Wit exterior (photo credit: Joel Wanek) Architectural salvage provides handsomely quirky decorative elements through the space, although you won’t mistake this for a posh downtown theater. It does retain that hand-built, slightly rough quality common to Chicago storefronts. Kasemsarn, who teaches at the School of the Art Institute, recruited students to help with the finishing.

The modest lobby features a bar, and the building has ample restrooms — a seven-stall ladies’ room should minimize lines at intermission. Oversized ductwork is intended to keep theater goers at comfortable temperatures without contributing noise.

"I really want to control everything from the time you hit that lobby door," Wechsler says.

Theater Wit architectural drawings (photo by Dick Smith)

REVIEW: Hello Again (Boho Theatre Ensemble)

LaChuisa musical a sexy success for Boho

 

Adam Fane and Ben Burke 2 

 
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Hello Again
 
Written by Michael John LaChiusa
directed by Michael Ryzcek and Stephen Rader
Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through May 1st (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

  I’m going to preface this review with a simple plea to all theater patrons: Please turn off your cell phones when you enter a theater. Nothing kills momentum like an iPhone going off at minute 85 of a 90 minute musical, so please just turn it off.

That being said, BoHo’s production of John Michael LaChiusa’s raunchy sex musical Hello Again can’t be stopped by pesky ringtones. The sexual exploits of ten characters are detailed in ten scenes that take place in a different decade of the 20th century, and LaChiusa adjusts the score to fit the period, creating a musical collage Tom McGunn and Adrianna Parson with styles ranging from opera to disco to bubblegum pop. Directors Michael Ryczek and Stephen Rader utilize the intimate (read: tiny) space exquisitely, navigating their ten actors without the stage ever seeming too crowded, a feat accomplished by making sure no one stays in one place for too long. The directors are aided by Stephen M. Genovese masterful set, which utilizes a wall of turning wooden panels to subtly suggest environments without requiring much room while also creating exits and entrances when needed.

The music begins and the company takes the stage with their best “come hither” looks, standing in silence before dissipating and leaving the audience with the patron saint of sexuality, Whore (Christina Hall). She greets wandering Soldier (Tom McGunn) with the show’s title number, setting off a series of erotic encounters that run the gamut of the sexual spectrum while retaining emotional intensity through LaChiusa’s revealing lyrics. As the characters get physical, the songs delve into their psyches, revealing the pains and pleasures of promiscuity but also the basic human need for affection, sexual or not.

The entire ensemble, musically directed by Nick Sula, has a great handle on the complicated score, but the women of the cast provide the most memorable performances. Bookending the production, Hall’s strong belt impresses, particularly considering the wide range of the opening number – but where she most excels is in capturing the character’s vulnerability, portraying a woman who lives a life of passion without intimacy. “Morally bankrupt” Young Wife (Erin Creighton) struggles to stay faithful to Husband (Kevin Bishop) as her sexual curiosity leads her into the arms of College Boy (Sean Knight), and Creighton switches between reluctance, glee, and regret as she becomes more engrossed in her torrid affair. Her song “Tom” is a highlight, a heartbreaking recount of a missed love connection at a restaurant that lingers on her mind while she has sex with Husband, and Creighton’s ability to sing in her higher register while remaining at a low volume makes the number all the more chilling.

Sean Knight and Adrianna Parson Tom McGunn and Christina Hall
Adam Fane and Ben Burke 1 Christina Hall and Robert Whorton 2

But when it comes to crazed unbridled sexuality, Nurse (Adrianna Parson) takes the cake. After being raped by Soldier, she transforms into a maniac that uses sex as a weapon. In the scene following with College Boy, she twists nipples and ties up wrists before stripping down and mounting her unsuspecting patient, singing mid-coitus, “Somebody took what was mine, I say that ain’t gonna do. I want a little bit, give me a little bit, I’m gonna steal a little bit of you.” The disturbing scene is made all the more effective by Parson’s fearlessness, and she turns in one of the raunchiest sex scenes I’ve seen on stage.

Actress (Heather Townsend) is the most technically spectacular of the bunch, and Townsend shows off her thunderous pipes with “Mistress of the Senator,” one woman’s frantic plea to keep her uninterested Senator (Robert Whorton) at her side. The song requires incredible diction and range, and Townsend shows fantastic control, attacking consonants to clarify the tongue twisting lyrics and breath control for miles.

Hello Again is a play about the needs we all share, sexual or emotional, and Bohemian Theatre Ensemble’s production doesn’t hold itself back. The dedication of the actors to the material translates to raw excitement on the stage, and when the company says goodbye in a round of “Hello again,” get ready to reach for the nightstand because you’re gonna want a cigarette.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Christina Hall and Robert Whorton 1

 

REVIEW: Vanishing Points (Point of Contention Theatre)

A bleak, melancholic and beautiful vanishing point

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Point of Contention Theatre presents:

Vanishing Points

 

by Martin Jones
directed by Dan Foss
at Boho Theatre, 7016 N Glenwood
through March 20th  (more info)

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

When I entered the Boho Theatre to see Vanishing Points, there was music playing. It was the music of my generation. I recalled a world of wildly colorful polyester and music that exploded the mold of it’s own origins. Unaware, I was being drawn into the world of a normal family in Nebraska 1972 before the lights went down.

Point of Contention’s production of Vanishing Points by Martin Jones is a bracing and sometimes nightmarish ride through the psyche of those that survive horrific and seemingly meaningless violence. It is based on the true story of the Peak family of Grand Island, Nebraska of whom three members were murdered in their home before going to church. For anyone who has experienced the sudden loss of a family member, there are few ways to articulate what is left behind. That is what falls to the character of Beth played by Stacie Hauenstein. She is the prodigal daughter who returns from college with a long- haired boyfriend and no concrete plans. Her family wastes no time in expressing their disappointment.

This production is brilliant in the use of minimalism. The usual cyc wall backdrop is literally framed with impressionistic and stark projections hanging center stage. These are Beth’s memories as well as her present state of mind frozen in time and invaded by ghosts. The only other props are chairs and a stair railing. It is left to the cast to project the sense of everyday life and morals of the midwestern family and what happens when it is left behind.

Rick Levine and Annie Slivinski play the parents as salt of the earth, church- going folks. Their children say ‘yes sir’ and have toed the line until Beth comes home with Lenny played by Christopher Sanderson. Victoria Bucknell plays the role of kid sister Barbara with bratty perfection. This family has followed the rules and had full expectations of the American dream with a plant nursery business. The greenhouse is the rare solace in the drought stricken town for Beth. The last time she sees her father is at the greenhouse on what seems an ordinary day. The family leaves for church and she goes with Lenny on the back of his motorcycle for a trip down memory lane. The memories become endless and something from which Beth cannot escape.

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Actors Hauenstein and Sanderson play off of each other well. It is especially tense in the New York scene when Lenny grows tired of being supportive. His anger and weariness with Beth’s mourning is shocking and very effective. Ms. Hauenstein manages to pull off a midwestern stoicism without falling into the damsel in distress stereotype. Hers is a performance with a perfect balance of paranoia, fear, and dreams fraught with despair.

Kudos to Ms. Slivinski for her dual role as Beth’s mother Carolyn and Peg who runs an artists colony in the mountains. Slivinski is haunting as the ghost of the mother still sounding off in disappointment from beyond the grave. The same phrases repeat over and over but with subtly increasing intensity. Although there is no special effects makeup, the image of a woman with a bullet wound in her face is made clear as Carolyn menaces Beth long after the tragedy.

Victoria Bucknell provides much needed comic relief – also in a dual role as little sister Barbara and as hippie con artist Vicki. Her portrayal of Vicki was spot on and hilarious. Once again, very few props other than a folding chair but there is patchouli and chicanery quite ably inferred for those who can remember the early 70’s.

Morgan Manasa plays the role of the other surviving sister Fran who lives in Evanston with her husband and son. Somehow her father expected her to go away and ‘live her own life’. When she returns for the funeral, she is more detached and pulled by her own unhappy circumstances. There is no home to return to in Nebraska and like so many women, she has married her father in that husband Gary (Mark E. Penzien), lays guilt on her for pursuing something other than home and hearth. Ms. Manasa plays the role of Fran with a dark sadness and admirable restraint. (I have seen her in more manic comic roles-most notably “The Wonder: A Woman Keeps A Secret” also produced by Point of Contention. This role was a jarring contrast, which she played with deftness and subtlety.) She and Mr. Penzien are heartbreaking as they portray a couple whose casualties stem as much from lost dreams as the tragedies back home.

Mr. Sanderson plays a seriocomic dual role as Lenny and as Caz the mountain man who wrangles snakes. His casual approach to violence echoed what may have happened to her family – much more could have been made of this character’s connection with the killer in Beth’s imagination. . What is called shocking by the media and people ensconced in normalcy is everyday stuff to those of a more atavistic nature.

A minus for the direction is that the dual role of Rick Levine as father Walter and Uncle Cliff is too much of a throwaway. Mr. Levine is good as the father but that is undercut by an almost identical performance as Cliff. It is made obvious that their lives followed an expectation of conformity however; the characters should have been more delineated.

This is difficult and tense material that Chicago theatre veteran Dan Foss has chosen to adroitly direct. The seamless action is wonderfully enhanced by the stark musical score by Peter Andriadis, with echoes of Phillip Glass if he had scored for Ingmar Bergman. Applause goes to costumer Erica Hohn who dressed the characters in wonderfully authentic period clothes. The bright colors and whimsical patterns makes the tragedy of the Peak family hit close to home. It’s as if the audience is looking at an old photo album of memories frozen in time – hopeful, but with a touch of rebellion.

As the play ended, I had a knot in my stomach. And when the lights came up, as the soundtrack of my childhood was playing on the speakers again, the knot in my stomach tightened even more, a combination of nostalgia and loss.

Vanishing Points is a very effective reminder of how people can be either consumed or numbed by tragedy. Was it really a shock that this seemingly random crime happened? Have we become inured to violence and to the dark side of humanity? Vanishing Points is a haunting remembrance of the connection that we all share.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

“Vanishing Points” runs through March 20th at the Boho Theatre @ Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood. Tickets can be purchased through BrownPaperTickets.com or by calling 312-326-3631.

REVIEW: I Am My Own Wife (Boho Theatre)

Peter Robel shows grace & poise in this exquisite one-man show

my-own-wife

Boho Theatre presents:

I Am My Own Wife

 

By Doug Wright
Co-Directed by Peter Marston Sullivan and Stephen M Genovese
Thru February 13th (ticket info)

Review by Aggie Hewitt

Watching a one-man show is as terrifying as watching Philippe Petit walk on a high wire between the Twin Towers. At any moment he can come crashing down, flailing and unstoppable, leaving the audience with a bloody mess that they never asked for. When someone chooses that kind of undertaking, they make an oath to their audience. They say, “I promise not to fall. I promise you I can do this.” A one-man show is dangerous. Not in an artsy way, where it’s so provocative that it’s very existence is dangerous, it’s dangerous because it can be so embarrassing. The actor has nothing to hide behind. Even with a spectacularly written show, like Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife is, no amount of great writing is going to stop an actor from becoming Tobias Funke if he derails mid-performance. Sometimes people go to the theater for a grown-up version of a rollercoaster: with every rise and fall of the actors ability one can feel their body tense with the fear of witnessing something truly shameful. That doesn’t happen at Boho Theatre, where Peter Robel, playing all the 35+ characters makes it all the way across the high wire, with such grace and poise that you will forget to be scared at all.

wife I Am My Own Wife was originally created by Doug Wright, with developmental help from Moises Kaufman and the actor Jefferson Mays. It explores the life of German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf as she survived both the Nazi and Communist regimes, and Doug Wright’s obsession with her. The play has that lovely, sad bookishness of a Moises Kaufman play, and his presence is felt in the narrative. The scenes taken from real transcripts of interviews between Doug and Charlotte have a documentary feel to them, a feeling that is almost academic. It’s Doug Wright’s love of learning about Charlotte, and not his love of Charlotte herself that makes this play an intellectual treat. The more you learn about Charlotte, the more you want to fact check yourself, to learn everything possible about this enigmatic character. When the lights come up at the end of the second act, the only thing you know for sure about Charlotte is that you want to learn more about her. What better way for a biographical piece to end?

All of this great writing would fall flat however if it were not being presented by a great actor. With something as audacious as a one-man show, the last thing you’d expect an actor to do is to take back seat to the story, but that is exactly what Peter Robel does in this performance. During the course of what must be an exhausting show, Peter Robel never once stops to let you see him working. His acting textbook pure; it’s as if Uta Hagen came down from heaven and instructed him in great storytelling. Since I assume she didn’t, a lot of credit probably goes to co-directors Peter Marston Sullivan and Stephen M Genovese.

The play works so well because even though Peter Robel’s performance is as amazing as watching a marathon runner pushing himself past normal human capacity for endurance, each choice that is made ultimately serves the play. The reason that this one-man show isn’t embarrassing is that it’s a great story, told by smart people. Every mind that went into this production, from Doug Wright to John Zuiker, who designed lovely and elegant set was focused on telling a simply and well-crafted story. This is a production that proves that when integrity is in the intentions, wonderful theater can be achieved.

Rating: ★★★★

Review: Boho Theatre’s “The Glorious Ones”

glorious-ones2

Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents:

The Glorious Ones

by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens
directed by Stephen M. Genovese
thru November 21st  (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

The Heartland Studio, home base for the Bohemian Theatre Ensemble (Boho), is one of the smallest black boxes I have ever been to in Chicago. As you walk in off the street, you find yourself inside a box office not much bigger than a phone booth.  Finding your seat in the theater is more like squeezing your way into a crowded elevator than getting ready to experience high art. And on Friday night, as the lights went down in that small, communal space, and the actors took to the stage to begin performing the regional premiere of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s glorious onesThe Glorious Ones it was the least lonely place in the world. What could be better, on a cold Chicago night, than to see a group of young, vibrant performers fill a small space with their white hot energy? This is a far from perfect production, but the dedication and energy of this vibrant cast is a treat.

Director/set designer Stephen M. Genovese has created a fine and audacious set; a blank old-world-looking wood stage dressed with simple red curtains and the occasional charmingly low tech surprise. It’s a set that screams, “Fill me! Bring the best you’ve got!” – and Mr. Genovese and his cast make a wholehearted attempt…and sometimes succeed.

The play is set in 16th century Venice, during the creation of Comedia del’ Arte. “The Glorious Ones” are a Comedia troupe, led by the pompous and egocentric Flaminio Scala (based on a real-life Comedia performer) played by Eric Damon Smith. The scenes of actual Comedia are great fun. One sketch is repeated three times, as a mapping device for what we know is going on behind the scenes. The best though, is “Armanda’s Tarantella,” slyly performed by the fearless Dana Tretta. Most of the large group scenes have merit. “Flaminio Scala’s Historical Journey to France” is a showstopper, and highlights the energy and force behind these performances that make this show worthwhile.

John Taflan, Katie Siri, Danni Smith, Eric Damon Smith, Dana Tretta, Tom Weber The thing the show is missing, and it is sorely missed, is honesty. The one-dimensional character of Flaminio Scala is prouder than proud and intensely serious. He speaks of his work with dignity and pride, and yet, seems to have no relationship with it. The man as a comedian is never explored, or even dignified with attention. In a pivotal scene, Flaminio embraces a struggling street performer (Courtney Crouse), after watching him perform, and takes him under his wing. Flaminio didactically spells out his lesson plan to build the young raw talent into his protégé. Here, Flaminio gets the opportunity to talk about his work; instead of reveling in it’s humor like a comedian, he discuses it with the wistful dreaminess of a school girl recanting her favorite lines from Twilight. Mr., Smith has the most stage time, and so bears the burden of being an example, but I assure you the lack of truth on stage was a cast-wide epidemic. From the audience, it seems that Mr. Genovese focused too intently on the larger than life aspects of the show and forgot that a show needs honesty to be relatable.

About two-thirds of the way through, Danni Smith as Coloumbina breaks the monotony of disconnected energy and hits one out of the park with “My Body Wasn’t Why,” an empowering and tear-jerking ballad about art, aging and womanhood.

Lynn Ahrens’s interesting book races through the first half of the show, asking the audience to simply accept the characters without working for it. In the second half of the show, when the action finally slows down, it is difficult to muster empathy for anyone.

The wonderful thing about it, though, is the subject matter. We are invited to experience the creation of Coloumbina, the sassy maid; Pantalone, the miserly old man; Dottore, the quack doctor, and Harlequin, the sly prankster, which is a real treat for a theater lover. Stephen Flaherty’s music is full-bodied and emotional, and paired with Lynn Ahrens’s lyrics makes for a great soundtrack. It is in this partnership that these two create strong work, but Lynn Ahrens’s book independently leaves much to be desired in terms of character development.

The thing you have to do to enjoy this show is to understand that it is not a musical comedy. It is a musical about comedy. But the entire cast invites you warmly into their view of history, and you get to see a neat, shiny version of the creation of an art form. If you are a comedy lover (who isn’t?) go see this show. It’s a musical about the creation of something really important, and it is worthy of your attention. For a theater lover, this production is a historical journey worth taking, even if there are a few unintended pratfalls along the way.

Rating: ★★★

Review: Point of Contention’s “The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret”

Hilarity Truly Ensues in Point of Contention’s

“The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret”

Point_of_Contention_The-Wonder

Point of Contention Theatre presents:

The Wonder: A Woman Keeps A Secret

by Susanna Centlivre
Directed by Margo Gray
Running thru August 26th (buy tickets)
Location: BoHo Theatre at Heartland Studio (map)

Review by Paige Listerud

This is what Chicago’s theater scene is all about: around a corner, in a little space one could easily pass by, a small theater company is doing great things. Director Margo Gray has assembled a lively and gifted cast for Point of Contention’s production of The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret. This 18th century play by Susanna Centlivre, considered second only to Aphra Behn in her time, receives light and fast modern flare, while staying true to its ribald, audacious, and feminist origins. Step into that little black box–an evening of 295 year-old fun awaits you.

Set in colonial Brazil, the clever and virtuous Violante (Megan Faye Schutt) hides the daring Isabella (Lisa Siciliano) who has escaped from her father, Don Lopez (Jeff McLane), to keep from being married against her will for money and station. Trouble is, Violante is also in love with Isabella’s brother, Don Felix (Jason Nykiel). Every attempt to keep Isabella’s secret and help her on to true love puts Violante’s relationship with Don Felix in jeopardy. Her intrigues on Isabella’s behalf spark Don Felix’s suspicions, manly pride, and jealousy, and could ruin her own chances at happiness.

Of course, even given all the intrigues and mishaps between principle players, the bawdiest comedy comes from the servants; each player cast in these roles invests them with vigor, relish, and imagination. Ready for a three-way? Don Felix’s servant Lissardo (Justin Warren) certainly is–and attempts to negotiate between his dalliances with Isabella’s maid, Inis (Morgan Manasa) and Voilante’s maid, Flora (Hayley L. Rice). Warren skillfully wrings laughs out of every situation. Of course, he’s lucky; he has lines like, “Methinks I have a hankering kindness after the slut.” Drunken carousing with the Scotsman Gibby (Eric S. Prahl), servant to smooth Colonel Britton (Sean Patrick Ward), is a surefire way to pass the time while the girls’ tempers cool down.

Jeff McLane’s anxiety-ridden and compulsive Don Lopez is nothing short of hilarious. Point of Contention may want to put a ball and chain on him to keep him from getting away. Morgan Manasa does quadruple duty bringing bright, distinctive comic turns to each role she plays. Rice’s Flora is the perfect hearty, buxom foil to Schutt’s vivacious, intelligent Violante. The feminist moments of the play are enjoyable because the expressions of loyalty and boldness between women occur naturally within the context of the women’s choices.

As for the guys, where did POC find these smart, good-looking men—I mean, actors? Seriously, it’s impressive to see a work like this taken on and cast so evenly. Brett Lee’s Frederick is such a solidly good guy that one’s heart breaks in the end when he’s the only character who isn’t hooked up with anyone. Is it too late for a rewrite?

One soft spot remains, which could be worked out in the course of the run. In the second act, a relatively long scene between the two principle lovers, Don Lopez and Violante, shifts from romantic quarrel to reconciliation to comedic free-for-all over Felix’s reawakened suspicions. Schutt and Nykiel have not quite mastered the transitions between romantic moment and farce, which would be an essential skill for any 18th-century leading comic actor.

Special nods go to set design (Amanda Bobbitt and Allyson Baisden), lighting design (Brandon Boler), and costumes (Carrie Harden). This company follows the principle of doing a lot with a little. The ability to suggest colonial Brazil with precise touches and avoid drowning the cast in stuffy frippery must be commended.

Rating: «««½

BoHo Theatre holds free staged reading tonight of “101 Dates”

 

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Enjoy the reading of:

101 Dates
Written & Performed by David Rodgers Jr

June 1, 2009 7:30pm
Free Admission

BoHo Theatre @ Heartland Studio
7016 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago, IL 60626

Tickets must be reserved ahead of time by emailing producers@101datessf.com.

101 Dates, a new comedy by Bay Area resident David Rodgers Jr, has had staged readings throughout Northern California, and continues the tour in Chicago and New York.  What started out as a journey to find love has turned into a two-and-a-half-year project in which David went on one hundred and one dates! He’s dated men, women, an ex-Catholic priest, and even a celebrity. 101 Dates is a satire of contemporary dating for all audiences, gay, straight…or whatever.
David recreates the best-of-the-best of the 101 men, women, men who used to be women, and women who used to be men he’s met in his quest for love.

The show features multi-media elements such as digital film segments, animation, and the spirited people of San Francisco sharing opinions of popular love songs, pick-up lines, and love. In addition to the show, a new website has been launched; www.101datessf.com where people can read David’s blog, share dating stories, and ask dating advice.


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