Review: Night and Her Stars (The Gift Theatre Company)

  
  

Thornton and his cast earn their ‘applause light’

  
  

Ray Shoemaker and Joe Mack in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.

   
The Gift Theatre presents
  
Night and Her Stars
  
Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by
Michael Patrick Thornton
at
Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map)
through April 24  | 
tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

The effect of television on human civilization has been up for debate since the first flickering blue light emitted into people’s homes. “What was life like before television?” is a question that is repeated in Richard Greenberg’s 1995 play, Night and Her Stars, revolving around the 1950’s quiz show scandal involving academic Charles Van Doren and the Q&A show, “21”, now running at The Gift Theatre, directed with mastery by artistic director, Michael Patrick Thornton.

The vast majority of the American population can hardly fathom an existence without television. As this number increases, the debate on the social implications of television withers, being replaced by greater evils of technology. Nevertheless, this tale of America’s tested faith in television, and The Gift’s production, succeeds in reveling in nostalgia whilst finding immediacy, resonance and heart in its characters and their flaws.

Lindsey Barlag (foreground) and Erika Schmidt in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.As Greenberg himself notes, this play “must not be mistaken for history.” It is in this vain that the Gift takes us back to a skewed cold war era consumer driven television world of the 1950’s. Set designer Adam Veness does a remarkable job of transforming the tinderbox storefront space into a gaudy haunting replica of the notorious game show, “Twenty One”, complete with an “Applause” lighted sign and a four-sided blue glowing orb of a television set.

The first act primarily follows the rise and fall of the knowledgeable Jewish contestant Herb Stempel (played by Raymond Shoemaker with pitch perfect desperation, optimism and hamartia). Stempel is discovered by game show producer Dan Enright (Danny Ahlfeld) after being pressured by sponsors and execs to bring brighter contestants onto the show to avoid dead silence and stammering. Ed Flynn gives an entertaining supporting performance as the Geritol sponsor pleading with Enright, “I have to appeal to geriatrics.” These demands lead to Enright feeding answers to an initially hesitant Stempel resulting in his reigning championship run.

Stempel’s ethnicity and lack of on-camera charisma aren’t quite what the show’s audience is looking for, as Keith Neagle delivers the powerfully cringing line, “I hate him like rabies!” In one of the highlights of the play, Shoemaker is brilliant as Stempel pleading for any other question than the one he is given to go down on during his fall. As Stempel begins to reveal the truth to the press, Enright plays it off as “Jewish self-hatred.”

Along comes the more “all-American” contestant Charles Van Doren (Jay Worthington) who descends from a long line of famed academics. Van Doren is fed answers to replace Stempel on the show. Worthington gives a complex and exciting performance. As Charlie, he conveys a man who is given everything at once, yet happiness eludes him.

Charlie Van Doren’ can be considered a symbol of television stardom, be it quiz shows or reality shows. He embodies short lived fame and a lack of touch with the real world. Contrasting another Charlie amidst a modern day TV scandal, Van Doren finally exclaims, “I don’t want to win anymore.” Van Doren’s confession is staged effectively by Thornton with a chorus of the Christian congress instantly forgiving his sins.

Branimira Ivanova’s costumes are scrumptious, with many raided directly from the “Mad Men” wardrobe department, giving us glimpses into a range of rising movements in the late 50’s during the American Chorus’ interludes. The pinstriped suit and polka-dotted tie Enright gives to Stempel for his television debut is a sure laugh each night. Lighting designer Scott Pillsbury creates impressive effects and moods with the small space including an emotional lighting storm and perfectly placed moments in which the audience becomes lit. Miles Polaski’s sound design balances nicely between the atmospheric and the expressive spectrums.

     
Keith Neagle, Aemilia Scott and Jay Worthington in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg. Aemilia Scott and Ray Shoemaker in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars', wirtten by Richard Greenberg.

While Shoemaker and Worthington carry the show, it is ultimately an ensemble production. Joe Mack may be the most perfect casting in his turn as the oblivious game show host Jack Berry. Thornton utilizes Greenberg’s American Chorus expertly, as these fine actors come into the light to play pivotal roles only to disappear into an ever watching amoeba. Katie Genualdi is charming and smart in her various appearances, especially at the top of the second act in an ad for cornflakes infused with caffeine. Erika Schmidt has a calm intensity as a reporter who finally brings Van Doren to the truth. Established Chicago actor Paul D’Addario, as the exec Al Freedman, is as powerful of a presence silent as he is during dialogue. Aemilia Scott, as Stempel’s wife, is fascinating in struggling with her doubts for her husband. Ahlfeld’s Enright occasionally has some pacing and timing issues that may get tighter during the run.

While Greenberg’s telling of this cautionary tale may not land quite as powerfully as a decade or two ago, it still stands the test of time as an historical account that has grown into legend. The heart and humanity of this play lies with a character I’ve yet to mention played with wonder and honesty by veteran actor Richard Henzel. Perhaps, do yourself a favor and save the reading of the program until after the show and be surprised by the final scene in which we finally see Van Doren in his natural setting.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Jay Worthington and Richard Henzel in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.

Night and Her Stars continues at The Gift Theatre through April 24th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm with Sunday matinees at 2:30. (no shows April 16 and 17). Running time is 2 hours, 25 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $25 (Sundays) and $30 (Thursday, Friday and Saturday). Industry and senior prices: $20 (Sundays only). For more info visit  thegifttheatre.org.

     
     

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Gift Theatre offers holiday show, extends ‘Lonesome West’

  
  

Gift Theatre ends 2010 with holiday play, ‘Lonesome West’ extension

  
  

The Lonesome West - Gift Theatre

Written by Allegra Gallian

The Gift Theatre is a Chicago-based theatre company situated in the north-west city neighborhood of Jefferson Park, taking the form an intimate 50-seat storefront space located at located at 4802 N Milwaukee Ave.

Map picture

The Gift Theatre Company, whose mission is to tell great stories on stage with honesty and simplicity, has been producing shows since 2001 with their premiere production of Boy’s Life. The company, led by Artistic Director Michael Patrick Thornton, has been consistently producing shows at their home location and around the city each year since then.

Most recently their 2010 season included One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (review ★★½), Suicide, Incorporated (review ★★★), The Lonesome West (review ★★★) – and they celebrate the season with Get Behind Me, Santa! And The Lonesome West , directed by Sheldon Patinkin, has been so well received by both audiences and critics alike, it has been extended for another 5 weeks, now closing January 30, 2011!

Get Behind Me, Santa! is a two-act comedy performance using both sketch comedy and improv taking on all things holiday-related. Poking fun at everything from tacky sweaters to Yule logs and everything in between, The Gift Theatre Company partnered with the Gale Street Inn to bring a little extra cheer and good tidings to the city.

The Gift Theatre Company also celebrates the season every Wednesday and Friday with Natural Gas performed by the cast of Santa’s Great American Depression Holiday Show, America! The show offers 50 minutes of holiday amusement.

     
Josh Rollins and Mike Harvey - Gift Theatre Gift Theatre - Cuckoo Nest

Not only does the company continue to produce theatre, but they produce film as well under the name of giftFILM, led by artistic directors Kenny Mihlfried and John Kelly Connolly. Part of giftFILM’s mission is to, according the company’s Web site, “produce short and feature-length films and videos, primarily (but not exclusively) written, directed, and performed by ensemble or company members of the Gift Theatre Company, and to actively encourage an ongoing collaborative relationship between theater and filmmaking communities of the city of Chicago and surrounding areas.”

For more information see the Web site at http://www.thegifttheatre.org/.

 

VIDEO: Behind the scenes at Lonesome West, featuring Michael Patrick Thornton and John Gawlik.  Video shot by Aemilia Scott and Tom Blanford, edited by Aemilia Scott.

  
 

REVIEW: The Lonesome West (The Gift Theatre)

  
  

Laughs and loneliness in the Irish countryside

 

 Lonesome West

  
The Gift Theatre presents
   
The Lonesome West
  
Written by Martin McDonagh
Directed by Sheldon Patinkin 
at
The Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map)
through Dec. 19  |  tickets: $20-$30  |  more info 

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

There’s something oddly Midwestern about Martin McDonagh’s depiction of the Irish hamlet Leenane. There are a few scenic landscapes and a ton of boredom. Perhaps that’s why Chicagoans react so well to his homicide-riddled plays. Even though we’re oceans apart from Connemara, something seemed very familiar in The Gift Theatre’s production of The Lonesome West. I believe I’m less inclined to murder, but the monotony of Valene’s and Coleman’s existence is definitely relatable.

The Lonesome West is part of a loose “Connemara trilogy” of plays set in the West Irish hills, the other being Beauty Queen of Leenane (which Gift put up a few years back) and A Skull in Connemara. Although Lonesome West has much less stage blood than many other McDonagh’s plays, it’s still rife with violence. Two brothers (masterfully portrayed here by John Gawlik and John Kelly Connolly) bicker constantly over just about everything, from money to bags of chips. Frequently, the spats boil Lonesome West2 over into armed duels. The brothers’ relationship causes plenty of heartache for the local priest, Father Welsh (Paul D’Addario), who is already wracked by oodles of Catholic guilt and alcoholism. The quartet of characters is rounded out by Girleen (Brittany Burch, who makes a terrific Chicago debut), a girl who might be jailbait, but could also be much more sentimental.

Probably the most striking aspect of the production is the fiery dynamic between Gawlik, who plays the wrathful Coleman, and Connolly, who portrays the miserly Valene. Lonesome West a great example of a play which comes off much different on the stage as opposed to the page. Gawlik and Connolly are tip-toeing towards middle age, which makes the childish infighting of Valene and Coleman feel especially pathetic. When merely reading McDonagh’s text, this doesn’t particularly jump out, it’s easy to forget the character’s ages when they act so immature. But Gawlik and Connolly force out the characters’ pettiness, the major driving force for the production.

Obviously, Gawlik and Connolly have much more than their age going for them. The duo has an engaging chemistry. They can barely hide their glee as the two brothers one-up each other. Gawlik is able to mine dark, vicious depths for a truly spiteful Coleman. Connolly, on the other hand, finds the grubby greediness of a five-year-old.

D’Addario, a Gift favorite, gives another great performance. He comes off as essentially Catholic, sickened and saddened by what he sees around him, but unsure about how to proceed (which, in turn, leads to more guilt). Through Lonesome West, McDonagh joins the leagues of Irish writers before him that comment and struggle with the dominant faith of their island. In the semi-mystical style that modern Celtic playwrights love, the play basically becomes about the damnation of souls, a spectacular turn that works despite seeming destructively heavy. D’Addario is a big part of making the plot churn forward, and he is successful.

Along with D’Addario, the story wouldn’t work without the solid performance of Burch. At first, her Girleen just seems like silly, flirtatious eye candy, but the character’s complex layers shine through as the production progresses. In fact, my favorite scene is the one without the brothers. Halfway through the piece, D’Addario and Burch share a stage alone and the outcome is electric, dripping with loneliness and desperation.

Sheldon Patinkin’s direction shows a smart understanding of the tumultuous relationships that McDonagh writes so well. The first half is uneven, slack in pacing and the cast seems a little timid. It takes until after intermission for the show to start shooting sparks. Once everything snaps together, the production flies. For a show often billed as a black comedy, there’s a hefty amount of heart.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

REVIEW: Suicide, Incorporated (Gift Theatre)

Working 9 to 5 – for an Easier Way Out

 

88 88 88
   
Gift Theatre presents
  
Suicide, Incorporated
   
Written by Andrew Hinderaker
Directed by
Jonathan Berry
at
Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map)
through July 25th  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Gift Theatre’s tightly woven cast make the most of Andrew Hinderaker’s world premiere one-act, Suicide, Incorporated. Directed by Jonathan Berry, the play cleverly provides them with a lot of most to make. First, it features a business whose mission is to mold a suicide’s dead-end perspective into a skillfully crafted final farewell letter; second, the play depicts the general corporate tendency to reframe life’s tragedies into manageable chunks of reality that will yield to its scripted dialogues and flowcharts. Scott, owner and founder of the business, is played with sharp, savage and mercenary relish by Ed Flynn. Yet even he is just using the tools he’s learned in business school to create order against the inexorable pull of suicide’s black hole. Too bad he cannot avoid creating new victims, like his manically kiss-ass assistant, Perry (Jay Worthington).

josh&mikediner-1.jpg_20100616_13_54_26_26-116-165 We find his new employee, Jason (Joshua Rollins), a writer of former Hallmark Card fame, already well down that rabbit hole—conversing with shadowy figures like his younger brother Tommy (Mike Harvey) and last-chance customers like wheelchair-bound Norm (Michael Patrick Thornton). The spookiness of Jason’s conversations with his brother doesn’t become apparent until midpoint through the play’s progress–this is perhaps the biggest flaw of Gift Theatre’s production or Hinderaker’s play. Stronger foreshadowing of Jason’s true relationship with Tommy is necessary for greater impact. Also, a clearer sense of Jason’s edginess would also lend veracity to his final intentions in the play’s last 15 minutes.

But, as a general rule, Suicide, Incorporated is not about family bonds—it’s about life under a business model, wherein the company of men becomes your real family, whether you want it to or not. All work and no play, that’s the quintessence of Jason’s character—stereotypically forming stronger bonds with the people he works with, or serves at work, rather than with his own flesh and blood. Lucky for the audience, Jason’s growing relationship with new customer Norm makes for the real backbone of the show.

Thornton’s performance as Norm is immaculate; every tic and pause perfectly timed—an actor’s showcase of steady, low-key, precise technique. Such an accurate portrayal makes Norm’s confession about how he ruined the love 89of his life simultaneously bizarre and eerily truthful. “How did I become one of those guys?” Norm asks; the lone guy you thought could never hurt a fly, the lone guy who loses his newlywed wife by stalking her. It’s a masterpiece of characterization.

All these lonely men—where do they all come from? That was the question I was forced to ask myself at the close of Suicide, Incorporated. If Hindraker’s play holds any water, then it seems that they all come from business school or from workplaces that barely feed their souls or even lets them know that they have souls to feed–or lives worth living outside the workplace. It’s only a one-act, but what goes missing the most from the play is the acknowledgement that these male characters were never encouraged to be whole to begin with. Once they have lost someone vitally important to them, yet existing outside the business model, will they ever get a real chance to be whole again?

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Showtimes are Thursdays and Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm with Sunday matinees at 2:30.

Featuring Gift Artistic Director and ABC’s Private Practice’s Michael Patrick Thornton with guest artists Josh Rollins, Mike Harvey, Ed Flynn, Jay Worthington and Jim Farruggio.

sucicide_pic sucicide_pic
       

REVIEW: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Gift Theatre)

Crazy good, but not great

 
CUCKOOS#2
 
The Gift Theatre presents:
 
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
 
by Dale Wasserman
based on the novel by Ken Kesey
directed by John Kelly Connolly
at Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map)
through May 9th (more info)

reviewed by Katy Walsh 

“Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”

      -American children’s folk rhyme

Less than fifty years ago, lobotomies and electroshock treatments were still the accepted prescription to cure mental illness. The Gift Theatre presents One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a play based on the multiple Academy Award-Winning film version of the novel of the same name, by Ken Kesey. Set in 1959, the story takes place in a psychiatric institution. The patients, orderlies and even doctors are under the self-appointed supervision of Nurse Ratched. Through ‘therapeutic’ humiliation, Nurse Ratched manipulates her fiefdom into disciplined obedience. Her tranquility is threatened upon the arrival of Randle Patrick McMurphy. Trying to avoid hard labor on a work farm, McMurphy opts for the loony bin to serve his remaining five month sentence. Although McMurphy is non-compliant with authority issues, he’s not crazy. It’s Ratched vs McMurphy for control of the psychos. Seeing the Gift Theatre’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a voluntary commitment to witness the true madness of corrupt authority in a healing profession.

The Gift Theatre has this Grotowski quote on their home page:

 
Acting is a particularly thankless art. It dies with the actor.
Nothing survives him but the reviews, which do not usually do
him justice anyway, whether he is good or bad. So the only
source of satisfaction left to him is the audience’s reaction. The
actor, in this special process of discipline and self-sacrifice,
self-penetration and molding, is not afraid to go beyond all
normally acceptable limits.  The actor makes a total gift of himself.

                –Jerzy Grotowski “Towards a Poor Theatre”

It’s a powerful statement to the life of a stage actor. Movie actors have it a little easier. Their legacy is preserved in film… forever. Unfortunately and fortunately, it’s the Academy Award-Winning performances of Jack Nicholson (McMurphy) and Louise Fletcher (Ratched) that haunt this stage version. Both Paul D’Addario (McMurphy) and Alexandra Main (Ratched) play it safe – following suit to the film depiction of their roles. It’s not wrong, but it just isn’t quite right. To quote Nurse Ratched, D’Addario and Main are “just fine.”

CUCKOOS#3 This show really belongs to the supporting crazies. Jay Worthington (Billy Bibbit) is a standout as a stuttering, vulnerable mama’s boy. Different from the film version of his character, Kent L. Joseph (Chief Bromden) narrates the crazy practices of the hospital in disturbing monologues. His ability to ball up his massive frame into a defenseless pile is amazing. David Fink (Martini) is hilarious in his delusional state. Guy Massey (Harding) is frighteningly sane as a crazy patient. With no real lines, Adam Rosowicz (Ruckly) delivers a memorable performance with inhumane sounds and physicality.

This cast is huge. The stage is small. Under the direction of John Kelly Connolly, the ensemble set up and break down chairs an insane amount of times. This stage “clean-up” throws off the pacing slightly and the scene transitions are clunky. The set, designed by Ian Zywica , is institutional, right down to the green “mental ward” paint choice. Kate Murphy designed the costumes which are a wonderful combo of old school nurses’ uniforms, 50’s cocktail dresses and pajama party. Whether it was Murphy’s or the actor’s decision, I loved Norman H. Tobin (Scanlon) appearing throughout the show with only one slipper on. Come on…that’s crazy!

Overall, this production tends to basically be a live version of the 1970’s movie, which makes it an entertaining gift available to be unwrapped through May 9th.
 

 

Rating: ★★½

 

 CUCKOOS#1

Running time: two hours and forty five minutes includes fifteen minute intermission and delayed start.  

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REVIEW: Almost, Maine (The Gift Theatre)

Gift Theatre creates a real charm offensive

 almostmaine_440

The Gift Theatre presents:

Almost, Maine

 [a special dinner/theatre event]

by John Cariani
directed by Barlag, Belcuore, Blandford, Branham, Dibo, Gawlik, and Jones
featuring: Dan Aho, Burfete, DiNicola, Emmons, Jim Farruggio, Ed Flynn, Aemilia Scott, Justine Serino, and Kyle Zornes
through February 21st
(more info)

review by Paige Listerud

Much about John Cariani’s play, Almost, Maine, mirrors Jules Feiffer’s 1977 play Hold Me!  Both are collections of light, comical sketches regarding the uncertainties of the human heart. The essential difference between them is that the poignant neuroticism of Feiffer’s work grounds itself in the daily struggles of urban—okay, New York City—existence, while John Cariani situates his characters in the benignly rural and utterly imaginary location of Almost, Maine.

securedownload So, Fieffer’s characters fret, not only over their past or latest or lack of personal relationships, but also the political and social uneasiness of their times. By contrast, Cariani’s small town residents exist far, far, far away; not just from anything resembling everyday concerns—quite a thing to think about in a play emerging from 2004—but also reality itself. All the struggles of falling in and out of love dominate the minds of Almost’s inhabitants as if there were nothing else going on in the world. Moreover, the play steps further from reality in the literal use of sight gags based on our clichéd idioms about love.

All of which would be a treacly mess in less proficient hands. But Gift Theatre Company’s numerous directors and actors demonstrate a delicate, persistent care for the material, eliciting every critical ounce of human sympathy from the moment. The pain of abandonment or loss receives the wry and gentle touch called for by the text. Humor is almost born, not from the lines, but in the space between the lines as characters contend with what direction to go in the pursuit of romance. In the process, Capriani’s deeper wit about the precariousness of creating or preserving love shines through. It’s a magical place, Almost, Maine—but magical places can be as dangerous as the real ones. Almost is fraught with the possibility of losing one’s big chance at love, even when it is staring you in the face.

almostmaine_440

Since the play has such a short run—and only for benefit purposes–GTC hadn’t planned to have it reviewed. Too bad, they’re getting a good review anyway. At the very least, Almost, Maine is a real charm offensive, a solid showcase for cast and crew. Plus, if it’s perfectly timed to be “date theater” for the masses this Valentine’s Day, at least it’s a work about love that both is and is not about the happy ending.

 

Rating: ★★★

 


THE DINNER:

A four course Northeastern Seafood Dinner For Two @

The Gale Street Inn

  • Crabcake Appetizer
  • New England Chowder
  • Lobster And Mussel Clam Bake For Two
  • Cranberry Cheesecake

Production and dinner are only available as a coupled event:

“The Seafood Duet”
A Very Special Event Generously Sponsored by The Gale Street Inn
To Benefit The Gift Theatre Company

Dinner For Two at Gale Street Inn + Tickets for Two to The Gift = $75.

A Value of $60 for Your Meal + A Value of $50 for Your Tickets = Sweet!
Tax, Tip, Beverage Not Included.
A Non-Seafood Substitute Menu Will Be Available Upon Request.
Sorry, No Refunds.  Exchanges Subject to Seating Availability.

Please give yourselves plenty of time to savor and enjoy your meal before the show! Patrons also enjoy the freedom to park their car in Gale Street’s lot!

For Evening Performances:
Please plan on being seated at Gale Street by 6:00pm and no later than 6:30pm.

For Matinee Performances:
Dinner served after the show starting around 4:30pm.
Before the show, please plan on being seated by 1:00pm.

As a courtesy to you, the audience, and the actors, there is no late seating at The Gift.

For tickets call (773) 283-7071, or
BUY ONLINE!
View Reservation Policies

 

Show openings/closings this week

 chicago-fountain-skyline

  show openings

 

11:11 The New Colony

Aelita & Shiny Boxes Dream Theatre

Almost, Maine The Gift Theatre

Aunt Nancy and Doggie Tales Corn Productions

The Cabinet Redmoon Theater

F.A.T. People Gorilla Tango Theatre

Bourbon Street Burlesque New Millenium Theatre

Frindle Griffin Theatre

Glass Menagerie Chicago Heights Drama Group

The Greatest Porno, EVER! Gorilla Tango Theatre

I Am A Camera The Neo-Futurists

Improvised Disney Gorilla Tango Theatre

Jessica Presents: Yet Again Gorilla Tango Theatre

A Raisin in the Sun The Theatre School at DePaul University

Return to Haifa Next Theatre

Rush Limbaugh! The Musical Second City

Show Us Your Love Bailiwick Chicago

The Skin of Our Teeth Moving Stories Theatre (at  The Artistic Home)

TGIF: RAW Gorilla Tango Theatre

Wiggerlover DCA Theatre  

Wilson Wants It All The House Theatre of Chicago

chicagoatnight

show closings

 

The American Pilot Theatre and Interpretation Center, Northwestern University

Ayn Rand Soup Kitchen in Atlas Shrugged Corn Productions

Burlesque is More Annoyance Theatre

I Hate Hamlet Big Noise Theatre