Review: Big Love (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

  
  

Ambition exceeds preparation in wedding dark-comedy

  
  

Jamie Bragg and Marcus Davis in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

     
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents
   
   
Big Love
  
Written by Charles Mee
Directed by Nilsa Reyna
at Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through June 25  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Tackling a work by contemporary mosaic playwright Charles Mee requires aiming high. By design, Mee’s scripts are better described as blueprints than directives. His stage directions pose particularly unique challenges for production directors; some are broad and flexible, while others are comically specific, often with a blatant disregard for economy:

“…and, of all the brides and grooms, some are/ burning themselves with cigarettes/lighting their hands on fire and standing with their hands burning/ throwing plates and smashing them/ throwing kitchen knives/ taking huge bites of food/ and having to spit it out at once, vomiting…”

Stack commands like that on top of hefty themes and purposefully jarring in-play styles, and one can imagine why so many young artists are drawn to Mee’s work. The challenge his shows present offer unique opportunities for exciting, meaningful, fiercely entertaining theater.

Carla Alegre Harrison in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles MeeIf the actors have their lines memorized, that is. Director Nilsa Reyna’s production demonstrates a worthy vision, but his hindered in practice by jumbled dialogue, meandering actor-intentions, and hit-or-miss execution.

Adapted from The Suppliants by Aeschylus, Big Love follows 50 Greek women’s journey for refuge from a family arrangement forcing incestuous marriage upon them to their cousins. Having escaped by ship, three would-be brides (Carla Alegre, Jamie Bragg and Kate LoConti) seek shelter in an Italian mansion, owned by wealthy Piero (Todd Michael Kiech, inexplicably cast as a man of persuasion–Kiech exhibits the charisma of a robot wearing an ascot). Soon after, intended husbands Patrick King, Marcus Davis and John Taflan (ideal as the entitled, handsome, bratty, machismo-saturated Constantine) discover their fiancés’ hiding-spot and follow pursuit. Mee’s play jumps back and forth between Aeschylus’ narrative and broader musings on love, duty, and gender.

Royal George Theatre’s teeny upstairs studio serves as the playing space for Mee’s large-scale show. Nick Sieben’s smart, functional thrust set makes ideal use of the black box’s shortcomings. Concrete slabs, a soaking tub, pink ribbon, and a flower-installation create an ambiance that performs double-duty satisfying the play’s realistic and ethereal sensibilities. It’s one indication of a clear vision behind the show–another is David Mitchell as the curly Q’d, flaming nephew. Mitchell’s heightened acting meshes with text’s abstract style in a way that even when, out of the blue, he dips into a bath and sings a show tune, the moment is touching instead of hackneyed or contrived. Kate LoConti too makes hard-to-digest character traits easy to swallow.

     
(from top) John Taflan as Constantine, Marcus Davis as Oed, Pat King as Nikos in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee (from left) Carla Alegre-Harrison as Lydia, Jamie Bragg as Thyona, and Kate LoConti as Olympia

The rest of the show fares less well. Too many scenes are burdened by actors not seeming to be invested in the same moments, and emotional highpoints reading as stilted and clunky. Here, Fusion can’t quite merge Mee’s tangential ideas with a convincing story.

There‘s a reason so many plays end with a wedding; for better or for worse, they’re inherently dramatic. When even one that ends in a murder-orgy is tedious, the chemistry is off.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

 David Wesley Mitchell, Lisa Siciliano, Todd Kiech in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

 

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REVIEW: 1985 (Factory Theater)

 

Strong performances penalized by repetitive punchlines

 

 Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 002

   
Factory Theater presents
   
1985
   
Written by Chas Vrba
Directed by
Eric Roach
DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)
through November 7  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Chicago, 1985, and the Bear Nation holds totalitarian control over the city’s football fans. As the Bear Nation’s chief propaganda writer Winston (Chas Vrba) begins to question why everyone devotes their lives to a team that keeps losing, the unfathomable happens: the 1985 Bears start winning. A lot. In Chas Vrba’ 1985, George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984” is reimagined in the grisly world of professional sports, where Big Brother is “Papa Bear” George Halas (Ernie Deak) Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 004 and Room 101 turns Packers fans into blue and orange-clad zombies. Vrba should be applauded for trying to bring a new audience of sports fans to the theater, and the clever script is impressively researched and filled with references to the professional sports world.

Winston’s loyalty to the Bear Nation begins to crumble when he notices the flaws in the Nation’s doctrine. A romance with new recruit Julia (Lindsay Verstegen) blossoms into full blown treason, as the two hatch a plan to enlighten their friends through loss. In the midst of the absurdity, Vrba begins to examine the subconscious of the football fan, and the reasons why people cheer for the teams that keep losing. The reason is for years like the ’85 Chicago Bears. The ‘90s Bulls. 2010 Blackhawks. Winning is so much sweeter when all you know is loss. Unfortunately, the script spends less time on idea and more on the goofy antics of the Bear Nation.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (our review), but a comedy about sports culture needs to survive on more than audience-specific jokes and slapstick physical comedy. Vrba’s concept has the potential to explore the deeper emotional and psychological connections between the fans and their team, but this takes a back seat to an uninspired love triangle between Howard, Julia, and foul-mouthed Diane (Stacie Barra). After a while, the script develops the feel of a sketch comedy idea that has overstayed its welcome. Despite the strong efforts of the cast, the limited supply of jokes and gags gets old, making the latter half of the play drag as it retreads old ground. “Bear down!” as a pledge of allegiance stops being funny pretty quickly, and the barrage of groan-worthy Bears puns (“membears,” “bearification,” “bearnificent”) seldom stops, but it’s hard to fault the actors when they show such dedication to their material.

Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 006 Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 005

The hardcore followers of the Bear Nation are unabashed in their chaotic revelry, and the larger group sequences are the most memorable in the production. When everyone gathers to watch the game, you sense the camaraderie An early scene where the Nation puts “membear” Matt (Timothy C. Amos) on trial for his allegiance to the Resistance and role in the Cubs’ loss of the ’84 National Series Championship erupts into a viciously hilarious free for all, and an enraged Amos proves a more than capable opponent for the Nation. Matt’s transformation after a visit to Room 101 gives  Amos a lot of opportunities for screwball comedy, and his reactions to cast mates often trump the actual dialogue. But as the show progresses his outbursts become superfluous; his character another joke Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 001gone stale. Compared to his ecstatic scene partners, Vrba’s controlled, soft-spoken portrayal of Wilson gets lost in a flood of crazy. Wilson never appears very thrilled about the Bears, so when his friends complain about his odd, withdrawn behavior, it just doesn’t make sense.

The sports play is an intriguing creature. The dramatic and comedic potential of professional athletics has been explored by Hollywood, but remains largely unknown to the theater world. The possibility of the same people packing the stands at Soldier Field filling the seats of Chicago theaters is a thrilling one, both from a financial and intellectual standpoint, but is probably an unrealistic hope for most theaters. 1985 is a step in the right direction, and Eric Roach’s slick direction keeps the pace of Vrba’s clever script as smooth as the Super Bowl Shuffle. Despite it’s problems, 1985 has more comic morsels to offer Bears fans than any other play this season, and football fans should definitely give it a look – it will be a night to “remembear”.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 003

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REVIEW: Proof (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

 

Must proof be a prerequisite for belief?

 

Proof-Hal (Nick Freed & Claire (Nilsa Reyna) photo by Scott L. Schoonover

    
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents
   
Proof
  

Written by
David Auburn
Directed by Alex C. Moore
at
Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through November 14  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Proof, a play by David Auburn, a fascinating piece of work that plays with the double entendre of the word “proof” that occurs throughout the show: literal math proofs being solved as well as the need for proof to discover the truth. How can a person prove a fact that seems impossible? Can someone who’s certifiably lost their mind prove to still be a genius in their work? Chicago Fusion Theatre touches on these and so much more with their production.

Robert (Sandy Elias and Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano) photo by Scott L. Schoonover) The set design, by Scott Schoonover, is subtle yet bold, particularly in the color choices of stark white against bright blue. Suspended above the stage are multiple torn-apart notebooks full of mathematical equations. The rest of the set mimics the notebooks in both color and information, with the stages outer walls also covered in equations.  A mirrored backdrop provides the actors space to add additional equations. The set itself if bare save for one chair.

Proof opens on Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano), on her 25th birthday, talking with her father, Robert (Sandy Elias). Desipite DiCristofano and Elias having a real connection that radiates out into the space, DiCristofano starts off a little shaky as she tries to find her ground. As the show continues, however, she definitely improves and finds the depths of Catherine. Elias is instantly personable as he fills the space. When he speaks he owns the stage with an amiable presence.

The plot twists and suddenly it’s clear that Catherine is, in fact, speaking with her dead father – whom she’d taken care of in life – in her own thoughts. It’s a quick turn that pulls the audience further into the action, then caries it forward. Hal (Nick Freed), a former student of Robert’s is going through Robert’s old notebooks, looking for uncovered mathematical discoveries. Freed is funny and charming in his role; he understands his character’s intentions and brings Hal to life.

Catherine’s sister Claire (Nilsa Reyna), returns home for their father’s funeral and to help Catherine out until she figures out what to do. Reyna starts out flat, especially as her character demands that emotions are let loose loose and exposed. DiCristofano, on the other hand, flourishes with her understated, dry humor as she delves into the depths of her character.

Hal (Nick Freed) photo by Scott L. Schoonover Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano) photo by Scott L. Schoonover
Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano & Robert Sandy Elias) photo Scott L. Schoonover Robert (Sandy Elias) Photo by Scott L. Schoonover

DiCristofano, like Elias, has great stage chemistry with Freed. They play well off of each other. Whenever there’s a scene between DiCristofano and Elias or DiCristofano and Freed, it’s captivating.

Through Proof, the action moves quickly and efficiently. There’s no point in which a scene drags on or is dragged out, allowing the scenes to flow and keep the audience’s attention. In between scenes the characters all add more and more mathematical equations to the walls of the set, adding to the chaos occurring around them. It’s an interesting punctuation between the performances and character interactions.

When Elias takes the stage later in the show in flashbacks of Catherine’s memory, he’s quite a stage presence. He’s full of life and commands the audience’s attention so it’s impossible to tear yourself away.

As the characters become more emotional, the scenes become more raw and heart wrenching. Since it’s such a small space, you can see all of the emotions play out in the actor’s eyes, pulling us into the action and holding us hostage.

Chicago Fusion has given us proof that they are a talented company, ably conveying their seismic artistic voice in intimate spaces.  

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Catherine (Natalie DiCristofano) photo by Scott Schoonover) Proof plays at the Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted St., through November 14. Tickets are $25 and can be purchased by calling the box office at (312) 988-9000 or at the Royal George Theatre’s Web site.

  
  

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REVIEW: J.B. (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

The Agony of Job for the (Post)Modern Human

 Zuss and Nickles

 
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents:
 
J.B.
 
by Archibald MacLeish
directed by
Emma Peterson
at
Oracle Theatre, 3809 N. Broadway (map)
through April 18th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is any number of reasons why theater companies, particularly young ones, would shy away from Archibald MacLeish’s Pulitzer Prize winning play J.B., produced by Chicago Fusion Theatre on Oracle Theatre’s stage. As a modern retelling of the Book of Job, the play easily becomes too much of a muchness. Too much loss . . . too much pain . . . too many unsatisfactory answers only begging the question “Why?” But then, consider the late 1950s, in which MacLeish wrote J.B., and the play’s Nickles, J.B. and Sarahhyperboles of pain and suffering are all too appropriate. In fact, compared to the ugly realities of that time they’re not even hyperbole.

A Frenchman once said, of the horrors of the French Revolution, that it had “destroyed all hyperbole.” The terror of the French Revolution could be multiplied exponentially with regard to World War II and its aftermaths. Look at the numbers alone: the deadliest conflict in recorded human history with 50-70 million dead. Tack onto that deaths resulting from the refugee crisis after the war due to the expulsion of 3 million Germans from Eastern Europe – the received retribution for Nazi atrocities whether they had supported the Third Reich or not.

Consider 6 million Jews dying in the Holocaust; then imagine the survivors of those death camps not being able to return to their original homes—compelled to face starvation and disease in overrun refugee camps. Recall that anti-Jewish pogroms took place in Poland, Lithuania, Romania, and Hungary both during and after the war.

Or consider the campaigns of wholesale rape of women and girls carried out by the advancing Red Army, “liberating” Eastern Europe from Nazi rule.

Consider the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; then check out the testimony of Tsutomu Yamaguchi, who survived both bombings. It reads like every zombie-horror-sci-fi nightmare rolled into one. Other survivors of the atomic blasts were reduced to “ant-walking alligators,” men and women who

“ . . . were now eyeless and faceless—with their heads transformed into blackened alligator hides displaying red holes, indicating mouths . . . The alligator people did not scream. Their mouths could not form the sounds. The noise they made was worse than screaming. They uttered a continuous murmur—like locusts on a midsummer night. One man, staggering on charred stumps of legs, was carrying a baby upside down.”

A charnel house, a charnel house—but do I belabor the point? Does Archibald MacLeish belabor the point in J.B.? Does the hero Job/J.B. belabor the point? Or, to recall Alfred Hitchcock, is there only so much reality that anyone can stand? Does religion or philosophy or science—or theater—help? Does bringing an audience within an approximate distance of trauma or horror, accompanied by its lurking associate, meaninglessness, really help a people face real world traumas, horror, or senseless suffering?

Mr. Zuss and Nickles Mr. Zuss, J.B. and Sarah

But wait, there’s more. One thing this production’s entire cast conveys to perfection is the deep cynicism of MacLeish’s play. That cynicism was born, not only of atrocity piled on atrocity, but also all the paranoia and hypocrisy of the McCarthy Era. That adds another toasty layer to the proceedings.

Who can argue with cynical Mr. Nickles (Virginia Marie), a circus performer who plays the Devil–aka ha-satan–opposite Zuss (Sandy Elias) the calm, sensible believer in the human spirit who takes on the role of God? Their dispute over their respective roles, as well as J.B.’s progress, lends choral and deconstructive depth to MacLeish’s play. We can thank our lucky stars for such solidly paired actors to guide the audience through this story. Why, in their hands, God and the Devil are like two competing superpowers, carrying out their proxy war on the territory of J.B.’s life.

J.B. (Jason Economus) and his wife Sarah (Natalie DiCristofano) form the show’s other solid pair. Economus excellently conveys J.B.’s unpretentious good-guy vitality through MacLeish’s heightened language. The speed bumps show up, though, when he has to switch from MacLeish’s language to lines pulled directly from the Bible. I myself have issues with MacLeish’s language—Pulitzer Prize or not. Sometimes the simple, clean power of lines from the Book of Job put his dialogue to shame.

J.B. Image But, without belaboring that issue, it’s quite clear that MacLeish knows his Job–yet another reason why J.B. won’t entertain everyone. Any audience might do well to read up on Job themselves, the more commentary the better. J.B. is a talkie, talkie, talkie play. When three wise men (Austin Campion, Josh Blankenship, and Alex C. Moore) visit the ruined and abandoned J.B., they almost overwhelm him—and us–with bankrupt philosophical dialectic. Still, there is salvation in all this verbiage. As Sarah, DiCristofano humanistically depicts a mother’s ruthless conviction over the deaths of her children, opposing God Himself as much as J.B.’s God-talk. Yet, in their reunion at the end, her performance reveals depths of redemptive grace.

Emma Peterson’s direction creates the circus atmosphere that frames and informs this play’s storytelling, deftly sustaining its controlled chaos. In fact, the dance movement that builds to J.B.’s encounter with the Almighty compels recollection of lines from the Bhagavad-Gita—the same ones that popped into J. Robert Oppenheimer’s head during the first test of the atomic bomb: “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” That scene alone is worth the price of admission.

Oscar Wilde once said, “The critic has to educate the public; the artist has to educate the critic.” Well, Chicago Fusion Theatre Company has educated me. Indeed, they have schooled me and wowed me with their production of this long forgotten masterpiece. By celebrating their achievement, I celebrate a city in which a small theater company will take a chance on a difficult play like this and boldly, fully, humanely realize it.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Nickles, J.B. and Sarah 

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