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
    
   

Theater Thursday: The Book of Liz

Thursday, September 16

The Book of Liz by Amy and David Sedaris

 

Chemically Imbalanced Theater 
1420 W. Irving Park Rd., Chicago

bookoflizJoin the cast and crew of The Book of Liz (our review ★★★★) after the show for a discussion and wine and cheeseball reception. Amy Sedaris‘ famous cheese ball recipes will be served. Sister Elizabeth Donderstock is Squeamish, has been her whole life. She makes cheese balls (traditional and smoky) that sustain the existence of her entire religious community, Clusterhaven. However, she feels unappreciated among her Squeamish brethren, and she decides to try her luck in the outside world. New comedy from the talent family, David and Amy Sedaris.

 
Show begins at 8 p.m.
Event begins immediately following the performance.

Tickets: $25
For reservations call 800.838.3006 and mention "Theater Thursdays."

REVIEW: The Book of Liz (Chemically Imbalanced Comedy)

Innovation triumphs over imitation

 

 

book of liz with mr peanut

   
Chemically Imbalanced Comedy presents
   
The Book of Liz
   
Written by Amy and David Sedaris
Directed by Angie McMahon
1420 W. Irving Park (map)
through December 18th |  tickets: $18  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Amy Sedaris is a nut. I’ve been following her career since her early days on Comedy Central’s surrealist sketch show “Exit 57” (directed by Annoyance Theatre founder Mick Napier). Unlike her female contemporaries Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who have both deservedly found success on network television, Sedaris has never learned, or perhaps wanted, to tone down her irreverent brand of humor and repackage it for the masses, as evidenced by the darkly hilarious Strangers With Candy. In short, she is a unique spirit that demands a cult following.

Book of Liz - Sarah Rose Graber That is why I was blown away by Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s remount of its production of The Book of Liz, a play penned by Sedaris and her equally talented brother, David Sedaris. Sarah Rose Graber fills in for the title character, Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, a character originally portrayed by Sedaris herself, and brings an energy that is both congruent with the play’s wacky tone while wholly original. This is significant because I would expect Sedaris’ shadow to intimidate most actresses into paying homage, but not so with Graber.

The Book of Liz concerns a small community of Quaker-like Christians known as the Squeamish. The Squeamish are simple folk who do without modern-day amenities and instead spend their time praising God and making cheeseballs. Liz is the under-appreciated genius behind the cheeseballs, which serve as the community’s financial backbone. Her patience is tested when parishioner Brother Brightbee (Brian Kash) visits from a nearby community to learn the lucrative craft. It is then that Liz resolves to run away and experience the outside world.

While on the outside, Liz encounters a cast of colorful characters, including a Ukrainian couple that speaks with cockney accents and a colonial-themed restaurant staffed by recovering alcoholics. Meanwhile, back at the Squeamish community, Brother Brightbee becomes increasingly frustrated as he fails again and again to replicate the famous cheeseball recipe.

Graber deserves all the praise she can get for her wide-eyed portrayal of Liz. She is unwavering in her commitment to the character’s little tics, from her squeaky voice to her “Gosh darn” facial expressions. Equally worthy of praise is her supporting cast, including Kash, who did double duty by filling in for Bryan Beckwith, the actor slated to play restaurant manager Duncan. As Brother Brightbee, Kash’s hyperbolized passive aggression toward Liz makes for some tense comedy. Adam El-Sharkawi, too, does an outstanding job as Reverend Tollhouse, the Squeamish community’s no-nonsense leader. In one of the play’s only dramatic scenes, Liz confronts the Reverend about his workhorse ways. Here, Graber and El-Sharkawi forge a genuinely touching connection in the midst of the otherwise hair-brained comedy.

Angie McMahon’s direction is resourceful. Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s space is tight—incredibly tight. And yet she manages to swiftly transform the stage from a parish to a restaurant to a doctor’s office without letting the momentum of the play slow for a moment.

Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s The Book of Liz stays true to the Sedaris spirit. Fortunately, this does not hamper the actors from taking risks and breathing new life into the play’s characters. If you are looking for a good laugh (and who isn’t these days), check out this production!

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Cast (*indicates returning cast members)

*Sarah Rose Graber…Liz
*Brian Kash…Brother Brightbee
*Nathan Petts…Donny/Visil
*Cynthia Shur…Cecily/Dr. Barb
*Adam El Sharkawi …Rev. Tollhouse
*Lina Bunte…Sister Buterworth
Laura Wilkinson…Oxanna
Eric Bays…Yvonne
Bryan Beckwith…Duncan
Directed by *Angie McMahon

  
  

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REVIEW: Ring around the Guillotine (Chemically Imbalanced)

Time travel for the jilted

 

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Chemically Imbalanced Theater presents
 
Ring Around the Guillotine
 
Written by Chris Tawfik and Anthony Ellison
Directed by Anthony Ellison
at
CI Theater, 1420 W. Irving Park (map)
through May 23rd (more info)

By Katy Walsh

The cure for being dumped? Finding love in an unexpected place and time… like a prison 600 years ago. Chemically Imbalanced Theater presents Ring Around The Guillotine, a lustful comedy about time travel. In modern day, Tyler is drinking away her break-up. Her supportive coworker gives her a gift of an antique ring and rose. Putting on the ring, Tyler is transported back in time to Magical France. The country is in duress. The queen and king are mourning the death of their daughter and lamenting the ambitions of their son, Carvier. Tyler beams into Carvier’s jail cell, who has been sentenced to the guillotine for killing his love, Princess Camille. Tyler is Camille’s splitting image. Ring Around The Guillotine is a soap operatic comedy with new age mystique against a renaissance backdrop.

This cast knows how to have a good time. They’re trying to not only crack up the audience, but also each other. Emily Harpe (Tyler) is hilarious as a messy drunk rebounder. Ashley Thornton (Beth) is the career-minded pizza manager with amusing fixations on her employees and work policies. Ross Compton (Randy) animates his scenes with chuckle-worthy delivery. Guillotine-licking Mat Labotka (Felipe) is the creepy prince playing over-the-top queen to Connor Tillman’s (Chester) straight man. Tillman’s dead pan slaps the punch line. The entire ensemble, with collective bios boasting extensive improv training, is a riot!

cic From the moment of arrival, you’re plunged into two stories. The contemporary story is relatable. Jilted girl, weirdo manager, pizza – got it. The period piece story is more challenging. It’s elegantly delivered by Jo Scott (Queen) and Martin Monahan (King), but the significance of what is occurring isn’t quickly digestible. Anthony Ellison directed and co-wrote Guillotine with Chris Tawfik The basic story is interesting and the dialogue is witty. At the same time, however, some of the initial scenes in Magical France don’t explain the set up clearly. The back and forth time travel adds to the delayed clarity. Scene changes go dark; a few of the transitions seem unnecessarily long. But this is allayed by the fact that energetic Cyndi Lauper soundbites fill the transitions, so “She Bops” provides a necessary distraction from an over-long break. Pop music, gags galore, people making out – Chemically Imbalanced Theater has invited you to party with them. Plus it’s BYOB and they’ll provide the entertainment.

 

 
Rating: ★★½
 

Running April 9-May 23. Fri & Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm. Tickets $15. Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission

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REVIEW: Epic Proportions (Project 891 Theatre)

Shortness on vaudevillian style slows down “Epic Proportions”

 Cole Simon, Anna Shutz, 3

Project 891 Theatre presents:

 

Epic Proportions

by Larry Cohen and David Crane
directed by Ron Popp
at Chemically Imbalanced Theatre, 1420 W. Irving Park
through March 28th (more info | tickets)

review by Paige Listerud

I once looked down on broad physical comedy. Absorbed by witty dialogue and high concept situations, I relegated trips, pratfalls, and near misses to comedy for the lower orders. That alone makes me a bigger ass than any of the actors that manfully, enthusiastically sport their way through Beau Forbes’ fight choreography in Epic Proportions, Project 891’s latest production at Chemically Imbalanced Theatre. Physical comedy, perfectly timed and emotionally truthful, is like ballet—an athletic challenge that looks deceptively easy.

Anna Shutz, Cole Simon 2 The athletic end of acting has waned with the advance of modern theater, a loss that shows most when well-trained actors take on physically demanding comic roles. Today, the art and craft of physical comedy seems the province of specialists, dropped from the average actor’s repertoire like a hot potato.

Too bad. With the exception of the physical stuff, Ron Popp has assembled an excellent cast, with each actor fit perfectly to type. Benny Bennett (Matt Lozano) is a likable star-struck schlub, beginning his film career as an extra in, “Exuent Omnes”, a movie helmed by the egomaniacal director D. W. DeWitt (Robert Kearcher). Benny’s brother, Phil (Cole Simon), an all-around American boy-next-door, comes to collect Benny to take him home to the farm. But, since it is the Depression, and since extras get a dollar a day plus free meals, and since the last truck has left all 3400 cast members stranded in the desert—per Mr. DeWitt’s orders—Phil stays to become party to the madness of a runaway, overproduced picture that sees no end in sight.

As for “Exuent Omnes”, think “The Ten Commandments” meets “Ben Hur”, meets “Quo Vadis”, meets every other B-list sword and sandal epic. Both brothers fall for pert, cheerful Louise Goldman (Anna Schutz), assistant director to the extras, whose job of dividing the extras into ‘slave group” or “orgy scene group” already sets brother against brother. Add an assistant to Mr. DeWitt (Matt Allis) with the demeanor of a shark and a lesbian costume designer (Liz Hoffman) lusting after Louise and you have plenty here to entertain beyond the sturm und drang of jumbled comic fight scenes.

Cole Simon, Anna Shutz, Matt Lozano.jpg 2 Cole Simon, Anna Shutz

Obviously, the production strives to be consciously overwrought, in stylized parody of Cecille B. Demille films. Some moments are more successful than others. Tommy Culhane’s deliciously bug-eyed gaze and overarching gestures set the right tone for pronouncements about the glory of Rome. Hoffman’s sassy Queen of the Nile and voracious Continental lesbian are treats. If only Popp’s direction didn’t deprive her of a few critical comic moments. Gary Murphy’s Demille-like voice-overs, as well as the cast of the mockumentary that first introduces Exuent Omnes–Kate Konopasek, Floyd A. May, Manny Schenk and Larry Teagarden–round out the manic film enthusiasm for a fictitious cult classic.

The cast certainly exhibits all the exuberance typical of a 1930s comedy. However, the craft that is the legacy of vaudeville and screwball films needs to be tightened up for the sake of a fully realized work. Who knew silliness could be so complicated? Who knew everything old would be new, and necessary, again?

Rating: ★★½

 

Matt Lozano and Cole Simon

EXTRA CREDIT:

Shows Opening/Closing this week

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Show Openings

 

“Master Harold”…and the Boys

TimeLine Theatre

The Alcyone Festival 2010 Halcyon Theatre

The Castle Oracle Theatre

Desperately Seeking Chemically Imbalanced Theater

Dreamgirls Cadillac Palace Theatre (Broadway in Chicago)

First Words Greenhouse Theater Center (MPAACT)

The Dames Storm Division New Millenium Theatre

Glitter in the Gutter Annoyance Theatre

Harper Regan Steep Theatre

Hughie/Krapp’s Last Tape Goodman Theatre

King of the Mountain Chemically Imbalanced Theater

Nighthawk Sandwich Storefront Theater (DCA Theatre)

Phedra New World Repertory Theatre

Real Bros of DuPage County Gorilla Tango Theatre

Savage in Limbo Village Players Performing Arts Center

Short Shakespeare! The Comedy of Errors Chicago Shakespeare

WHACK! Gorilla Tango Theatre

The Year of Magical Thinking Court Theatre 

 

chicagoatnight 

Show Closings

 

Annie Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University

The Capitol Steps North Shore Center for the Performing Arts

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre of Taiwan Dance Center of Columbia College

Give Us Monday Gorilla Tango Theatre

Icarus Lookingglass Theatre

Little Women Circle Theatre

Mamma Mia! Rosemont Theatre

Mark and Laura’s Couples Advice Christmas Special Gorilla Tango Theatre

 

Openings/Closings list courtesy of League of Chicago Theatres

Chicago Theater Openings and Closings this week

chicago-fountain-skyline

Show Openings

The (edward) Hopper Project The Storefront Theatre

24 Hour Project Infamous Commonwealth Theatre

Annie Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University

The Artist needs a Wife the side project

I Hate Hamlet Big Noise Theatre

Killer Joe Profiles Theatre

Kink Annoyance Theatre

Mamma Mia! Rosemont Theatre

Mary’s Wedding Rivendell Theatre Ensemble

The Original Improv Gladiators Corn Productions

Out of Order Metropolis Performing Arts Centre

The Prisoner of Second Avenue Citadel Theatre

Private Lives Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Sleeping Beauty Winnetka Theatre

Some Paradise Annoyance Theatre

Too Hot to Handel Auditorium Theatre of Roosevelt University

The Wedding TUTA Theatre Chicago

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Show Closings 

Chicago Sketch Comedy Festival Chicago SketchFest

Death of a Salesman Raven Theatre

It Came Upon a Midnight Queen Chemically Imbalanced Theater

A Look Through Our Eyes Gorilla Tango Theatre

Sketch and Sniff Gorilla Tango Theatre

Sublime Beauty of Hands and Klown Kantos Next Theatre and Theatre Zarko

A Very Merry Unauthorized Children’s Scientolgy Pageant A Red Orchid Theatre