REVIEW: Orange Flower Water (BackStage Theatre)

Troubled Relationships Lead to Family Trauma

Orange Flower Water (4 of 7)

BackStage Theatre Company presents:

Orange Flower Water

 

Written by Craig Wright
Directed by Jessica Hutchinson
Chopin Studio Theatre thru March 27th (more info)

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

If you’ve ever been part of an ugly breakup, then you probably know the mixed bag of emotions you feel toward your former partner once the relationship is severed. There’s the flood of anger fueled by the overpowering resentment. There’s the sadness felt through the mourning of something lost. And there’s the longing, the part of you that for some inexplicable reason no matter how poorly your partner treated you wants nothing more than for the two of you to be a happy couple once more.

Orange Flower Water (2 of 7)Often when such breakups are portrayed in drama, the scripts and/or the actors fail to do human nature and human emotion justice. Breakups are frequently portrayed as black and white. People are either in love or they are out of love. They either feel hatred, or they feel elated. And of course there’s always a bad guy—the evil lover—and the victim. None of this is real. None of this is true. And we all leave the theater feeling like we just watched some lifeless Lifetime movie that relates as much to us as a tree relates to a fish.

Fortunately BackStage Theatre’s production of Craig Wright’s Orange Flower Water does matrimonial unhappiness some justice. This is a story where perception is key, where bad guys and good guys are one in the same because such distinctions are not universal but rest in the eye of the beholder. This is a story that understands pain is sometimes necessary for love to flourish, and that life offers no easy answers or solutions.

The play is about two couples. Brad (Tony Bozzuto) and Beth (Shelley Nixon) are married with children. Their relationship is in shambles in large part to Brad’s obnoxious attitude. This is a man who proudly wears the label “asshole.” Beth meanwhile never thought the marriage was a good idea in the first place and now seeks the nurturing she craves from another man, David (Jason Huysman). David is married to Cathy (Maggie Kettering). Cathy is fairly deep in denial about the extent of David’s unhappiness in the relationship, which doesn’t bode well for when she finally finds out the truth of his infidelity.

Secrets are revealed and relationships that were once likely filled with tense silences overflow with shouting matches. After confronting Brad about the state of their marriage and confessing to the affair, Beth leaves, which leads to a drunken voicemail message to Beth via a monologue. Cathy, on the other hand, chooses to invert her anger and becomes a masochist, practically forcing David to have the most uncomfortable and least satisfying sex of his life.

As I watched the play, I couldn’t help but think of the award-winning television series “Six Feet Under”, which was famous for toeing the line of drama and comedy with absolute finesse. That’s why I was hardly surprised to find out Wright wrote for the show. His script is honest and touching without being sappy or contrived. He also inserts some powerful levity that spares the play from venturing into melodramatic territory, as well as painting each of his characters in both negative and positive lights, reserving the ability to judge for the audience.

Orange Flower Water (3 of 7) Orange Flower Water (7 of 7)

The acting is outstanding. Huysman plays David with a sincerity that makes it difficult to despise him for cheating on his wife. Meanwhile, Kettering plays Cathy as a soccer mom whose thinly veiled passive aggression is both true-to-life and comical. Nixon throws herself into the role of Beth. When the character displays her insecurity, Nixon is a lamb, but when Beth bares her teeth, the actress summons a lion’s fury. Bozzuto is incredible as Brad. His facial expressions, his mocking tone and the delivery of his lines is so specific. It’s difficult for me to conceive of anyone playing this role differently.

The only glaring flaw with Orange Flower Water is in the directing. The show is in the round and centered around a bed, which the characters rotate from scene to scene. Although this plays into the concept of perception, it also disrupts the view of the actor’s faces and movement. This wouldn’t be a big deal if the actors weren’t so good. But they are amazing, and they deserve to be seen clearly.

The other directorial miscalculation is with the use of transition music. In between scenes, as the actors regroup and the stage rotates, music with lyrics plays overhead. Any deep feeling achieved through the acting and story is immediately made shallow by the insertion of such a “Dawson’s Creek” convention.

Orange Flower Water is an honest portrayal of dishonesty in two relationships. It also is a lesson for the romantic that love often leaves a long and winding trail of pain in its path. With superb acting and an amazing script, this production is nearly perfect.

 

Rating: ★★★½

 

Orange Flower Water (6 of 7)

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REVIEW: Wilson Wants It All (House Theatre of Chicago)

A smart show about an unlikely future

 

Ruth as Hope 1st Speech sharper

The House Theatre of Chicago presents

Wilson Wants It All

By Michael Rohd and Phillip C. Klapperich
Conceived and directed by Michael Rohd
At the
Chopin Theatre, West Town Through March 27 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

"The hard times, the drought…. A shortage so awful that private toilets eventually became unthinkable. A premise so absurd…”

Whoops! Wrong show. That’s from Urinetown, a smart, snappy musical comedy about a dystopian, near-future Hope and Mer w. Wilson on screenAmerica so plagued by overpopulation, water shortages and political upheaval that the government has banned private plumbing. Whereas in the play we’re supposed to be talking about, House Theatre’s Wilson Wants It All — a smart, snappy drama about a dystopian, near-future America plagued by overpopulation, water shortages and political upheaval — the government is working toward a ban on private procreation.

While a musical can get away with an absurd premise, when a drama predicts the near future, it needs basis in present-day facts. U.S. population growth, according to the Census Bureau, is "projected to decrease during the next six decades by about 50 percent." So you can’t credibly blame America’s economic woes on overpopulation, let alone create a crisis so severe that it could lead within 30 years to government-mandated birth control.

This might have been explained away — as, say, the result of a deliberate misinformation campaign, overpopulation as the weapons of mass destruction of 2040 — but it wasn’t. At the outset, then, suspension of disbelief suffers a blow, and the plot continues to batter at it until it unravels fully at play’s end.

Outside of the storyline, though, "Wilson" is a very fine piece of staged science fiction. The grim future world that Michael Rohd, artistic director of the Sojourn Theatre in Portland, Ore., sets out as director so trumps the plot he and The House’s Phillip C. Klapperich have conceived as playwrights that we spend most of Act I delighting in the set, properties and staging.

2 Hopes and Meredith News folks and Wilson

The audience comes in to a clean bare set arranged with six floor-to-ceiling white screens. Both live-action and recorded video intersperse with the staged scenes in fluid and imaginative ways, such as a horrifying interactive billboard that analyzes and reacts to individual consumers. These aren’t new concepts — authors like Frederik Pohl and Harry Harrison wrote about them in the 1960s — yet with many clever details Collette Pollard, the scenic designer, and Lucas Merino, the video designer, ingeniously extrapolate from contemporary devices to show us their terrifying technological future.

We also see some skilled performances. As a kind of Greek chorus of vapid media commentators, Joe Steakley, Elana Elyce, Maria McCullough, Emjoy Gavino, Abu Ansari and Michael E. Smith are right on target, timed to the instant, and add welcome lightness to the play. Wilson in elevator

Some other details of the script work very well, too. America is fragmented into seven political parties. Hardly anyone uses surnames. Most of the characters act younger than their ages. It’s the bigger picture and the major plot lines that don’t make sense.

In Act I, we meet the sprightly Leslie Frame as Ruth: unemployed, 30 years old, and hoping to make a difference in her world. A wan Carolyn Defrin plays her fond, worried but rather naively unworldly mother, Meredith, and Edgar Miguel Sanchez boyishly portrays her earnestly political but inept and — it proves — fickle boyfriend, Remy.

At the other end of the scale, Rebekah Ward-Hays determinedly plays Hope, also 30, the orphaned daughter of a charismatic senator assassinated on the day of her birth. Wilson, the senator’s keen political strategist, laconically portrayed by John Henry Roberts, has been grooming Hope all her life to step into her father’s shoes. An army of aides, headed by Bryan (Kevin Crowley), stand ready to meet her every need. She’s America’s darling, its dream of delivery, and now it’s her time to come forward.

Yet Hope’s not so sure she wants the life Wilson has in store for her. And at the moment of decision, she discovers her Doppelgänger. This futuristic, feminine remake of "The Prince and the Pauper" has potential; the ultimate unveiling of Ruth, Hope and Meredith’s relationship, though tawdry and predictable, has roots in real-life situations.

But by the second act, when the charm of the stagecraft has begun to wear off, revelations of decades-long unrealized love, selfless conspiracy and the ultimate solution ring untrue.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

 

REVIEW: The Wedding (TUTA Theatre Chicago)

Over the Top and Into Your Panties

 wedding1

TUTA Theatre presents:

The Wedding

 

By Bertolt Brecht
Translated by Martin and Rose Kastner
Directed by Zeljko Djukic
thru February 14th (ticket info)

by Paige Listerud

You can keep Mother Courage or The Threepenny Opera—for me, right now nothing expresses Bertolt Brecht’s rage against the bourgeoisie like The Wedding, his early 70-minute lampoon of the middle class at play. But then, the folks at TUTA really know how to bring it. Their production onstage at Chopin Theatre’s downstairs studio is an almost ceaseless cascade of escalating inappropriateness. Like so many over-the-top family get-togethers, once drinking is in full swing, the loosing of social bounds leads to some pretty dark places.

wedding4 It’s a show to return to again and again. Zeljko Djukic’s superb cast wrings high schadenfreude out of every moment of humiliation and disappointment. Meticulous is the word that could describe each ensemble member’s performance—the most minor reactions between them give both humor and weight to wedding party developments–only it’s too dry and sanitized a term to describe all that really goes on. No, satire evolves both naturally and perversely from both unspoken and exposed disillusionments with relationships, marriage, and family. More essentially, they know how to play people both bored and boring, utterly irritated with each other from start to finish, doing everything to break each awkward silence and reaching extremes to fill each oppressively meaningless minute.

For sheer outrageousness, Andy Hager takes the crown, mostly because his character’s voyeuristic craving for poon tang doesn’t know the meaning of discretion and, since Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan are nowhere in sight, he must do the best he can with women in present company. Add a down-low tango, mixed with a naughty little ditty about bangin’ girls and you’ve got the kind of depraved degenerate you’d like to pass the time with at the next stultifying wedding you must attend—if only you could keep him far away from your sister.

wedding2 Djukic’s direction is a confident but invisible hand in the middle of all the mania, allowing mischief to blossom in the most unexpected corners while never allowing it to distract focus. And he knows how to coax the action back to its comic center once things have gone too far and Brechtian darkness beneath the levity shows its ugly head. Original music by Jesse Terrill contemporizes Brecht’s farce and provides the characteristic distancing necessary to comment on the action. A Greek chorus unto herself, aided by only scant few lines, the Bridegroom’s Mother (Laurie Larson) comments on the action by the force of baleful looks alone.

But an otherwise unstoppable production grinds to a clunking pace once Bride (Jennifer Byers) and Bridegroom (Trey Maclin) finally have been relieved of their obnoxious guests. If the dramatic choice is to show lack of chemistry between the newlyweds, it might be well to reconsider it. After all, passion is always a two-edged sword with Brecht. Love suffers from entropy as surely as any edifice and passionate hatred often emerges from the same messy, primordial, and unpredictable place as passionate love.

 

Rating: ★★★½

The Wedding runs January 14 – February 14, 2010, at Chopin Theatre Studio, 1543 W. Division, Chicago. For tickets call 847-217-0691 or go online to www.tutato.com

wedding3

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Theater Thursday: House Theatre’s “All the Fame of Lofty Deeds”

Thursday, December 3

All the Fame of Lofty Deeds

The House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin Theatre
1543 W. Division St., Chicago

loftydeedsphotoEnjoy complimentary pizza in the famous Chopin Theatre lobby before the performance, then stick around for the world premiere production written by rock journalist Mark Guarino and based on and featuring the music and artwork of Bloodshot Records recording artist Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers). This phantasmic journey into the mind of a fictional country music legend is what an episode of Howdy Doody might look like if it were directed by David Lynch. Sadly reflective and yet hilariously surreal, House Theatre’s All the Fame of Lofty Deeds mixes rock biography, live music and stunning visual effects to tell a tripped out tale of the demise of America’s last living cowboy. Stick around after the performance for a talk back with the some of the show’s cast and creative team.
Event begins at 7 p.m.
Show begins at 8 p.m.

TICKETS ONLY: $25
For reservations call 773.251.2195 and mention "Theater Thursdays."

Read our review here.

Review: House Theatre’s “All The Fame Of Lofty Deeds”

A banjo-picking, toe-tapping, tumbleweed-talking good time!

 

The House Theatre of Chicago presents:

All The Fame of Lofty Deeds

At the Chopin Theatre
Written by Mark Guarino
Based on and featuring the music and artwork of Jon Langford
Directed by Tommy Rapley
Thru December 20th (ticket info) 

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

lofty_deeds_poster Chugging whiskey, a forgotten country singer confesses his mistakes to a tumbleweed. The House Theatre of Chicago presents All The Fame of Lofty Deeds. The familiar cowboy skull and cross-guitars painting of Jon Langford is the basis for the character Lofty Deeds, an aging honkytonk singer. Playwright Mark Guarino utilizes the music and artwork of Bloodshot Records recording artist Jon Langford to create this play. As he faces his death, Lofty Deeds struggles with his past decisions. After trading love and family for life on the road under the exploitative pressures of record executives, Lofty is now haunted by the ghosts of musicians past.

Nathan Allen takes on the duality role of Lofty Deeds. He mixes the bitter drunk old man moments with flashback scenes of a naïve country singer at his happiest… on stage. The set design by Lee Keenan feels like a Jon Langford painting with its stark, gritty qualities. Where do has-been country singers go to die? A trailer in the desert, of course. Continuous reminders that this is a show about a man in a painting, director Tommy Rapley has actors don portraits to portray the ghosts of musicians past. On the stage within the stage, the live band adds to the upbeat tempo with memorable songs like “It’s Not Enough” and “The Death of Country Music.”

The story is dark; the forgotten celebrity drinking himself to death. The script is complicated; flashbacks with stories within stories. But like enjoying any country song, don’t get too caught up in the story or words. And appreciate art for art! Take pleasure in the music and the colorful images. What came first – the song or the picture? Langford created the character Lofty Deeds in his song “All The Fame of Lofty Deeds” and in his cowboy skull painting. Guarino took the song and wrote the play. The House Theatre took the play, painting and song have brought it to life on stage. The results, All The Fame of Lofty Deeds is a banjo-picking, toe-tapping, tumbleweed-talking good time.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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Review: Theatre Oobleck’s “An Apology….Delivered by Doctor John Faustus…”

Colm O’Reilly Slays As the Bad Doctor

 Colm O'Reilly as Faustus. Photo credit: Kristin Basta.

Theatre Oobleck presents:

An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events
Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening

by Mickle Maher
thru October 24th (reserve tickets)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Colm O'Reilly as Faustus. Photo credit: Kristin Basta. It was 9 years ago, at the Berger Park coach house, when I first encountered Mickle Maher’s play, An Apology for the Course and Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening. The coach house set an eerie gothic tone, as did the robes that swathed Colm O’Reilly as Mephistopheles–out from under which Mickle Maher crawled to play the bad doctor. That opening moment, complete with a candle balanced silently on Mephistopheles’ head, sealed the suggestion of magic, the transcendence of time and space, that dominates the legendary pact between Dr. Faustus and the Devil. It also seemed to suggest from the start Faustus’ subjugation to Mephistopheles. Maher’s performance was light, mercurial; he played for laughs and there are plenty of them–laughter against impending darkness.

In Theatre Oobleck’s current revival, Colm O’Reilly’s interpretation of Dr. Faustus already starts darker and weightier than Maher’s. But then the stage setting in Chopin Theatre’s basement studio lends itself to a leaner, darker, and more modern tone. The basement is utterly black; the closing of the room’s long black sliding door implies that audience and cast are being sealed in hell. Only two hanging pendant lamps provide lighting—and, oh yes, the Exit sign. The audience is set up in two opposing rows, giving the stage the look a fashion runway, with Mephistopheles (David Shapiro) planted silently at one end.

Memory is a curse, particularly when it cannot allow for the introduction of new impressions. The trouble is that, back at the coach house, O’Reilly’s Mephistopheles was so superb. Positioned at the center of dramatic space, with nary a single word or gesture, he fully embodied the Hell of Maher’s text:

Hell . . . where it’s said there is no Time, that the infinity of Time is snuffed by a larger infinity, a Time so vast it swallows our miniscule eternity, swallows even Heaven’s eternity . . . An infinity just too, too excessive. Excessive to the point of unholy meaninglessness.

It was around O’Reilly’s centralizing void that Maher’s Dr. Faustus could only dance.

logo At best, Shapiro’s Mephistopheles seems a perverse tabula rasa upon which Faustus projects his own evil. And project he does. Nothing in the production chills more than the voice O’Reilly switches to when relaying how he and the Devil supposedly conversed throughout Faustus’ last day. I say supposedly, because it’s implied that all conversations—indeed, all events, time travel, and wondrous discoveries—are occurring only in the depths of Faustus’ mind. If that is the intention, it is one that shifts this play toward the modern, in that it banishes magic from the play.

By magic, I only mean the Supernatural. More than enough magic abounds from O’Reilly’s performance. I don’t know how many have tired yet of critics comparing O’Reilly with Orson Welles. But where that comparison works in the play’s favor is in his ability to portray a genius utterly absorbed with his own self-importance. The darkness O’Reilly brings to the role doesn’t just lend gravity to Faustus’ outbursts, but creates with them an inexorably magnetic pull toward madness. “I don’t need to apologize to the whole world. I’m sick of the world,” says Faustus. Lines that could sound like clichéd world-weariness from another actor emerge from O’Reilly like a black vortex of futility, making his Faustus the evil of which he speaks. It’s a performance that unifies the Devil and the Devil’s prey.

Rating: ««««

“Poseiden” extends again – now closing Sept. 27th

Photo by Rick Aguilar- Must give photo credit for publication

 

Hell in a Handbag Productions presents:

POSEIDON! An Upside Down Musical

Book & Lyrics by David Cerda
w/add’l material by Cheryl Snodgrass
Music by David Cerda & Scott Lamberty
Directed by Matthew Gunnels
Where: The Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division Street
Runs: Extended through Sept. 27th  (Buy Tickets)

From Hell in a Handbag’s press release:

At a time when grants have seemingly disappeared and donations are diminishing, and major Chicago theater companies our sending our emergency requests for cash, Hell in a Handbag Productions, through sheer force of will, has produced a Jeff recommended, critically acclaimed, musical comedy with a cast of 23 and a capsizing ship on a budget that many those same theaters use for costumes alone, and the Chicago theater going public has responded favorably with their support. "We were fortunate enough to surround ourselves with a cast and crew that really believed in the show", says David Cerda, Artistic Director of the company. "We took a ‘if we build it, they will come’ approach and thank God, it seems to be working".

All photos by Rick Aguilar

POSEIDON! An Upside Down Musical

is both a musical parody and a loving homage to the classic 1972 film, The Poseidon Adventure, the grandmother of all disaster films. The play celebrates and lampoons the beloved cult classic through comedy and music. When a tidal wave capsizes the SS Poseidon luxury liner on New Year’s Eve, a group of scrappy passengers must climb to the bottom of the ship (now above them) before the ship sinks. The perilous journey of these colorful characters, both humorous and tragic, makes for an edge-of-your-seat adventure. Watch the story unfold with a party of hardcore Poseidon Adventure fans who provide personal commentary and touching insight on how film resonates in our collective conscious, resulting in very real shared experiences.