Review: Soul One (Clock Productions)

  
  

A meaningless trip through time

  
  

The cast from 'Soul One', being produced by Clock Productions at Natiional Pastime Theater

 
Clock Productions presents
  
Soul One
   
Written by Travis Hughes
Directed by Jessie Stratton
at National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
through April 30  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

There are some new plays that can benefit from readings, workshops and multiple productions. Even if they don’t quite work at first, they can continue to grow upon their strengths while fixing their weaknesses. And then, there are scripts that possibly need to be completely rebooted or scrapped all together. Travis HughesSoul One may unfortunately fall into the latter. Jessie Stratton’s direction of this new play with Clock Productions does it no favors. While there are some sparks of talent in this cast and the design, in the end, Hughes’ script provides a hollow jumbled journey that falls somewhere between bad sketch comedy and a 3am History Channel reenactment from the 90’s.

Travis Hughes’ muddled script is centered on a troubled rock star, Jack Straw (Ryan Hughes). Straw is tormented by his producer pressuring him to create a more “pop sound.” His solution is to fly off to the Caribbean where he hires three prostitutes, who just so happen to be able to sing and play instruments on command. The women in Hughes’ play are almost always of the submissive objectified type. From here, things get strange—but not in a fun way. Straw seemingly seeks help from a crackpot therapist (Chad Ramsey). Ramsey’s character, using “Hypnotherapy for Dummies,” puts Straw under hypnosis. This takes Straw back in time to the caveman era. After this, he travels to pseudo versions of Ancient Greece, Rome, the American West and the future. Each one of these scenarios is more nonsensical and underdeveloped than the previous. It appears Hughes’ purpose for this convention is to teach Straw the lesson that he should love his wife, but there is nothing of substance written for these characters to care whether he does or not.

The play opens as though this may be another character study on a troubled artist. We even get a heavily produced mock Behind the Music video. However, this play goes from overplayed to pointless. Hughes opts rather for one cringe worthy joke after another. The sophomoric humor falls flat and advances no story. Stratton’s direction halts the pacing to near unbearably slow. At points, literally nothing happens on stage for a good amount of time. There’s another moment where we simply sit and watch Ramsey blow bubbles in silence for almost a full minute. More salvageable, there are a handful of interchanges between characters that could almost hold their own in a more sketch comedy setting. The main issue with these moments in the play is that nothing is seemingly ever at stake. Ryan Hughes is not believable and is an extremely bland rock star with none of the eccentricities. Straw is written to be the world’s greatest rock frontman, yet, he doesn’t seem to ever sing, only speak lyrics in a rhythmic monotone. Ryan Hughes is doubled by his brother, Travis Hughes, as the “time travelling version” of the character. Hughes comes off much better as an actor in these segments than he does as the writer of frequently flat dialogue.

There is very little rock music played live for a play that is largely billed as a story about a rock star. However, Nikos Brisco demonstrates some skillful guitar playing that could have benefited from more stage time. Also, the female actors clearly have some wonderful talent that isn’t getting tapped in this production, particularly a charming Gemma Crowley. However, the women are consistently utilized as the butt of dull and somewhat misogynistic jokes and are never given an ounce of dimension. Stratton’s video design is polished, but the video-centric director relies too heavily on the projections. Also notable, costume designer Sienna Macedon pulls off her job admirably, providing the only clear indication of what time period we are in.

In addition to script flaws, the overall production lacks clarity and appears under-rehearsed with no polish to timing and pace. Ultimately, the play suffers from an identity crisis on all ends in regards to what type of play this is. There exists a lack of focus on any particular action or storyline. Ramsey, as the psychiatrist, states at the end of the two hours, “Time is meaningless.” Apparently, the same goes for the audience’s time spent.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

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Soul One continues at National Pastime Theater through April 30th, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30, and Sundays at 3pm.  No Performances on Easter Weekend. Tickets are $15 and may be purchased online or by calling 773.327.7077.  More info at clockproductions.com.

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REVIEW: Six More Scary Tales (Clock Productions)

  
  

Spookiness and slapstick give play unexpected charm

  
  

Donaldson, Ryan Huges and Mark Dodge as The Gentlemen Suitors and Jessamyn Fitzpartrick as Madelene , Photo by D. Denman

  
Clock Productions presents
  
Six More Scary Tales
   
Written by David Denman
Directed by
Jesse Stratton and Mark Dodge
at
National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
through Feb 26  |  tickets: $15 (call 773-327-7077 for tix) 

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Although it’s more than nine months until Halloween, you can still get into the spooky spirit with Clock ProductionsSix More Scary Tales, the second play in the “Scary Tales” series. Written and produced by David Denman, the play is composed of six vignettes, each a cross between a campfire story, a morality play and a comical farce. The blend of genres usually works, though at times the cheese factor can be off-putting. But, overall, the six pieces come together to create a reasonably entertaining whole.

The play opens with "A Tale of Super Powers." The extremely short piece, which comes off more as a clunky sketch, is about a mugging victim who claims to have super strength, speed and imperviousness to bullets. There really is no fear factor in the short at all. It’s strictly a comedy, and a rather poor comedy at that. It certainly didn’t set the right tone for the pieces that would come, but fortunately it ended up being the weakest link of all the stories.

Derek J. Elstra as Kent and Linsey Falls, Photo by D. DenmanThe next story is "A Tale of Curiosity." It’s that often told tale about the woman with the choker around her neck, the one that she refuses to remove—ever. Of course, when the man of her dreams finally convinces her to remove it, he gets a shocking surprise. Although stronger than the previous piece, this tale also is weak. The story alone is trite. I’ve probably read it more than half a dozen times in various scary story collections. There is nothing added to the plot to give it a twist. The only redeeming quality is how laughably hokey it is when [spoiler alert?] the woman’s head pops off.

It is here at the third story where Six More Scary Tales finally begins to deliver. "A Tale of Avarice" tells the story of an Arabian man who is tempted to enter the harsh desert by a stranger who promises him great wealth. Eventually the man encounters three bewitching women who magically replace his tongue with an evil doppleganger. The result is a comic tragedy that works theatrically on a number of levels. The story is compelling, the acting is decent and the blend of spooky and silly is a good balance.

"A Tale of Morality" is next, and the only short to elicit applause at the end. Actress Andrea Young steals the piece (if not the whole production) with her portrayal of Death as a godfather-like figure imbued with genuine maternity. The story is about a young Sicilian man who is taken up as the godson of Death. With such a benefactor, he grows up to become a successful doctor. However, things get a little tricky when he must choose to either honor his supernatural godmother or save the woman he loves.

"A Tale of Vampires" is a predictable piece that works only because of how it pokes fun at the lack of American worldliness. Three American girls ride a train through Romania and Hungry while reading a book on the region’s history, which includes vampire folklore. Two strange locals board the train as well, and, as you’d imagine, suspicions rise. Although it doesn’t have the story of "A Tale of Avarice" or the heart of "A Tale of Morality," it’s still an entertaining segment.

Finally, the play ends on "A Tale of Monsters in the Attic," a piece that is introduced early in the production and resolved at the end. It’s a pretty traditional tale about a mad scientist, an attic and, of course, monsters.

Although spotty throughout, there’s real heart to this small production. That heart shines through, almost making up for the faults of the play. Still, some of the faults, especially those committed early on, weigh the entire piece down. My advice: Skip the first 10 minutes, and you’ll enjoy Six More Scary Tales.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Six Scary Tales - Clock Productions - by David Denman

REVIEW: Doo-Lister’s Blues (National Pastime Theater)

Remembering the Blues

 

 Doo-Listers Blues - National Pastime Theater 2

   
National Pastime Theater 
   
Doo-Lister’s Blues
   
Written by Terry Abrahamson
Directed by
Victory Cole 
at
National Pastime, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
through November 28  |  tickets: $30  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I remember the west side in the 1960’s up close and personal. My grandparents lived down the street from WVON and just south of Madison when it went up in flames. Doo Lister’s Blues is a recreation of that time from one family’s point of view. Playwright Terry Abrahamson has attempted to put that time in a capsule with the burgeoning new Black music scene as the dramatic focus.

Doo-Listers Blues - National Pastime Theater 3 Doo is a barber on the West Side who is trying to keep things together. He and his wife want to adopt a baby. They present the perfect couple on paper. He is a business owner and she is a schoolteacher. Warren Levon plays the part of Doo with an understated grace and sweet humor. Lucy Sandy plays his wife Maria with a perfect counterpoint of common sense to Doo’s dreamer style. At the opening of Act I the riots are already in progress and Doo has remained in his shop to protect it while sending his wife to the relative safety of Maywood. Life is just okay and his shop is safe until a force of nature named Rebecca walks into his shop offering to set up a record business as a side gig. Victoria Abram-Copenhaver is perfect in the role of Rebecca, projecting the idealism and fearlessness that I recall about some of the White activists that appeared in the neighborhood when I was a kid. Unbeknownst to Doo, Rebecca is having an affair with his younger brother Buck. Buck is a 4F draft dodger with the FBI on his tail.

Doo wants to be a songwriter but his songs are treacle about chocolate love and candy kisses. Actually, the songs are a pretty funny motif to the first act. Mr. Levon is a portly man reminiscent of Barry White in his romanticism and looks. Rebecca shows no interest in his songs and yet gives him encouragement to change the scope of his music.

Terry Francois plays the role of Buck Lister. I have seen Mr. Francois in MPAACT Theatre productions, and he brings the same excellent crafting to the role of Buck Lister. Buck is doomed on all fronts. He is hiding in a garage in Uptown where he works as a valet. Add to the mix his relationship with a White girl. That is no big deal now but it was called miscegenation back then and was outright illegal or cause for violence. Mr. Francois plays the role with a light humor and grace that makes him even more horrible end even sadder. Agent Jewel Moton, played by Damien Crim, is in hot pursuit of Buck Lister. He is the rare Black agent and sent in to talk sense to the family ‘Negro to Negro’. Mr. Crim handles the role quite well. It is a hot potato of political and social implications. Agent Moton has advanced in his career, but he has become what we used to call ‘The Man’ and is not to be trusted. Mr. Crim displays, with marvelous subtlety, the emotions of a man conflicted and yet dedicated to his job at the same time.

It’s Act II where the play picks up steam and really delves into the music and Cultural Revolution that was the result of the violence. After the murder of Buck, Doo adopts a Black Revolutionary stance. He wears a dashiki and skullcap and the tone of his music changes. Kenneth Johnson plays the role of sidekick Catfish and he gives Doo a gentle ribbing while still being supportive. Mr. Johnson does well in the underwritten role. I wish that his character had been fleshed out more. Part of the play’s conflict resides in the angry turn that Doo’s music has taken.  I clearly remember the music of a group called ‘The Last Poets,’ and his music gives homage to them. My next-door neighbor would put her speakers in the window and blast the lyrics to the neighborhood. The music encouraged an uprising as well as pride in one’s roots before ‘Roots’. There was the exhortation to fight the cops, and Stokely Carmichael screaming ‘burn baby burn’ supported it. The production does a fine job of portraying those times and the consequences of the so-called revolution.

Doo’s music cannot be played on the radio because it could incite more riots. His wife loses her job for consorting with her own husband. One disc jockey agrees to play the music and Agent Moton gets to him. Rebecca goes on the run with the master tapes and Doo Lister ends up in jail for daring to practice the Constitutional right to free speech.

Doo-Listers Blues - National Pastime Theater 4 Doo-Listers Blues - National Pastime Theater 6 Doo-Listers Blues - National Pastime Theater

The National Pastime Theater Ensemble does a fine job reproducing the sights and sounds of the times. The barber/record shop is spot on with the Black Power fist in the window. Upon closer inspection there is the classic Huey Newton poster that displays the legendary Black Panther with a spear and a rifle. (I still have his albums.) Even the sounds of the scratchy AM radio sounded wonderful to me.

The company needs to work out some lighting cues. Before we were let in we were told of sound cue problems. That was not the case but the glaring house lights came up each time a scene changed. Another glitch was the insertion of the rapper between scenes along with the multimedia display. I presume that it was supposed to show the roots of rap going back to ‘The Last Poets’ but it felt ham-fisted and sounded even worse. Rapper Al Mayweathers held the microphone too close, obscuring any clarity of his words. It may have been to make the play more relevant to younger audiences but it served more to disjoint the rhythm of the action. History is cyclical; perhaps today’s rappers have a similar frame of reference, but it does not blend well with the story or the action.

Director Victor Cole makes good use of the supporting cast.. The characters appear in expressionistic light as if frozen in time. It’s a good way to present the police and corporate entities that served to suppress freedom of speech and expression in music. That time in history has so many layers that one two-hour play could not cover it without skimming over important facts. Abrahamson has selected wisely to focus on one family while perhaps inciting people’s curiosity to look up some of the other facts about Chicago during this time.

For the most part, Doo Lister’s Blues provides a thoughtful and enjoyable couple of hours with Chicago’s history. My companion and I were abuzz with memories about that time, which is definitely a nice side effect.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Doo Lister’s Blues runs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through November 28th. The National Pastime Theater is located at 4139 N. Broadway in Chicago. For more details call 773-327-7077 or log on to www.bluesonbroadway.com

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REVIEW: The Living Canvas – Demons (National Pastime)

Across space and time in the Autistic Mind

 

livingcanvas4

 
National Pastime Theater presents
   
The Living Canvas – Demons
       
Developed by Peter Guither
Directed by Lisa Adams
Written by Lisa Adams and Don Alsafi
at
National Pastime Theater, address (map)
through July 31st  |  tickets: $20 |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

livingcanvas5The Living Canvas is a perennial performance art piece that has been commandeered by photographer Peter Guither since 2001. Each year Guither works with a cast of actors and dancers to develop a story or theme using music, dance and movement under a collection of images and designs that are projected onto their  naked bodies. Far from being art for the prurient, The Living Canvas provokes a dreamlike, near-hallucinatory state for the theatergoer. Naked bodies of all shapes and sizes take on the moods and meanings invoked by the images that are projected upon them—even to the point of questioning whether these are human forms at all.

So, naturally, this year’s theme, produced by National Pastime Theater as part of its Naked July Series, fits like a glove. The Living Canvas – Demons is a pretty telling impression of the creatures that captivate and propel this year’s storyline, which involves taking a journey into the mind of a mentally handicapped young woman. Young Lilly sees figures that only become apparent to her sister once some sort of mind-meld takes place between them, drawing her from the so-called real world into the world that Lilly sees. Lilly’s world may indeed be filled with capricious, mischievous, and dangerous demons. However, it might be better to call them daemons, the ancient Greek term from which “demons” is derived. For the ancient Greeks, daemons were simply spirits–and those spirits can be either bad or good; their motives are not always certain or obvious.

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That concept for the beings in Lilly’s inner world fits far better than our Judeo-Christian construct of evil, otherworldly creatures. Lilly’s sister must try to determine whether Lilly’s daemons mean her harm or good; whether they draw her into maddening misery or whether they open her up to fresh perspectives; destroy her connection to reality or give her alternatives to reality that truly liberate. It’s a journey filled with fear and uncertainty, but it is also conceptually broadening and emotionally inspiring. It’s a dreamscape that Lilly may be unwilling to leave and, frankly, the audience may not want to leave it either.

livingcanvas9What is truly fascinating for me is that The Living Canvas – Demons seems to take the audience on a journey, not just through Lilly’s mind, but also through time and art in Western Civilization. The naked vulnerability of Lilly’s body, coupled with the appearance of the daemons when they seem truly demonic, brings to mind medieval imagery—in particular, the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Likewise, the psychedelic floral images projected onto the cast bring a strong flavor of 1960s Flower Power, but they can also evoke Bosch’s happier imagery in his “The Garden of Earthly Delights”.

It’s clear now that The Living Canvas is not just a performance piece but also a Chicago performance tradition. The community formed by the performers and  audience around each new story or theme evokes a “happening” in the style of the 60s. At the end of the show, performers talk about their personal evolution in body consciousness after performing under Guither’s projections in the nude and then audience members are invited onstage to partake of the experience. It’s nice to see so many in the audience take up the invitation and allow their human bodies to have a greater range of expression than most art usually permits.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

livingcanvas3 All photos by Peter Guither

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REVIEW: The Emperor’s New Clothes (National Pastime)

Naked, Not Ready

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National Pastime Theater presents
  
The Emperor’s New Clothes
   
Written by Keely Haddad-Null
Directed by Carolyne Anderson
at
National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
through July 31st  | 
tickets: $20   |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

National Pastime Theater opened its “Naked July Festival” with a clever re-imagining of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes by Keely Haddad-Null. In its dystopian future, Los Angeles has annexed surrounding states during the breakup of America. However, the City of Angels is about to go broke, with absolutely zip, zilch,  nada to pay its striking, angry city workers. Its Mayor, referred to more commonly as the Emperor (Don Claudin), orders his emperors new clothes 2public relations team to distract the public from his gross mismanagement. Said team breaks into the mansion of famous, reclusive film director Korminsky (Meg Elliot) to be advised of their next course of action to create the perfect media-based distraction. Korminsky tells them their only recourse is to rely upon The Tailor, who can construct designer clothing that only the enlightened can see.

Haddad-Null’s play lampoons, in a fun and sassy way, our truly American, Hollywood-fueled image obsession, as well as our culture’s corporate strategies for manufacturing consent. Unfortunately, upon opening, National Pastime’s production showed all the telltale signs of under-rehearsal. Sound design miscues permeated the evening. While such things can be cleaned up in the course of the run, the cast performances betrayed a distinct want of pace and comic timing, especially in the opening scene.

Director Carolyne Anderson simply must face the acoustic difficulties of the space. During the whole first scene, blocked on the raised back stage, the actors’ voices were dampened and flattened by the poor acoustics of the room. Korminsky’s quasi Howard-Hughes-on-Jesus look is quite inspired but the oversized beard also muffles Elliots’ delivery of this whacked-out character’s essential lines. Finally, the Emperor’s public relations team, made up of Maggie (Mary Roberts), Marco (David Bettino), and Maylan (Taylor Entwistle), needs to establish their comic cohesion, since they are meant to be the Three Musketeers of LA media manipulation. Poor choices in direction, which create only static interaction between them and Korminsky, deadened this scene’s comic potential.

 

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Action in the thrust part of the stage faired far better, where the actors delivered with greater clarity and formed a more intimate connection with the audience. Haddad-Null’s script may need a little editing, but for the most part this production needs a better way of actualizing the script. Maggie, Marco, and Maylan seem to do better when they are on the move, entering scenes from different directions, yakking constantly on their cell phones than they do actually talking directly to themselves or other characters. Don Claudin’s performance as the Emperor/Mayor shines above the rest since he does self-important asshole right and his projection from the back of the stage, while other actors’ lines get lost, is a model of proper technique.

Elliot also pours on a magical presence as The Tailor once downstage. Unfortunately, even her powers aren’t enough to transcend that damn back stage. Her scenes with the Empress (Miona Harris) were, fortunately, downstage so that the audience could catch the tenderness and amusement of their growing connection.

Time to head back to the drawing board to rethink direction and sharpen up this show’s comic timing as well. No comedy or satire should be lost upon the stage.

   
   
Rating: ★½
   
   

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REVIEW: Street Scene (National Pastime Theater)

How not to revive a play

 

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National Pastime Theater presents
 
Street Scene
 
Written by Elmer Rice
Directed by Laurence Bryan and Keely Haddad-Null
At
National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
thru April 25th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Elmer Rice‘s 1929 Pulitzer Prize winning Street Scene has over fifty characters and a heavy handed script that critiques an urban social structure that doesn’t exist anymore. Why did storefront theater National Pastime revive this show? Dated scripts have a certain appeal in revealing how contemporary society has changed or remained stagnant, and evolved acting techniques can often bring new life to a dusty play. Unfortunately, those only apply if the production is good, and National Pastime’s is not. 

Directors Laurence Bryan and Keely Haddad-Null fail to transform their assortment of actors into a cohesive ensemble, and much of this can be attributed to a lack of definition concerning the world of the play. Rice’s realist dialogue and characters clash with out-of-tune musical interludes and out of sync movement sequences, drawing attention away from the script and onto the weak choices of the creative team. Why have actors play instruments with a track if they can’t stay on tempo? Or have three actors engaging in expressive hand choreography in a corner of the stage in the midst of legitimate dramatic conflict? Some of the decisions are truly baffling, especially an unintentionally hilarious sound cue of a woman giving birth that falls somewhere between an infant throwing a tantrum and Linda Blair being exorcised. These all could be excused if the acting were above par, yet somewhere in the directors’ conceptualization of the script they forgot about the 23 performers on stage.

The plot of Street Scene concerns the hardships endured by the residents of a tenement in New York City, a group of people ranging from fresh immigrants to those having lived in the city their entire lives. The biggest challenge for the actors is the dialects, and their accuracy varies greatly, with most falling on the low end. The New York accents aren’t consistent, creating confusion about where exactly this stoop is located, and there are times when mother-daughter duo Rose (Melinda Ryba) and Mrs. Maurrant (Rebekka James) drop the dialect completely, making it even more distracting when it mysteriously reappears. The immigrant characters don’t fair any better. Musician Lippo (Michael Solomon) sounds more like Cheech Marin than an Italian, and his wife Mrs. Fiorentino (Kiley Moore) struggles to sound anything but American. Mrs. Olsen’s (Alexandra Shepherd) accent sounds like she can be anywhere from Ireland to eastern Europe.

The dialects are such an obstacle that it is difficult to connect with what the characters are actually saying, and plot points get lost in the muddled language along with any emotional resonance. The actors with the best vocals are the most intriquing, particularly Kaplan (Fred A. Wellisch) and his daughter Shirly (Shannon Hollander), who not only have flawless dialects, but also a clearly defined relationship. Their two windows of the tenement’s nine feature the most dynamic storytelling of the entire show, and watching the weary Shirly keep her rambunctious father in check provides actual entertainment value. Even apart these two actors shine, with Wellisch filling the “elderly revolutionary” role (see Awake and Sing’s Jacob) without becoming too tedious, and Hollander creating the show’s most genuine emotional moment, a melancholy goodbye with the tragic Rose.

Certain members of the supporting cast also provide nice but fleeting moments, like the ultra-prejudiced black neighbor Mrs. Jones (Sandra Watson) who is completely unaware of her son Vincent’s (Geoffrey Davis-El) tendency to rape, although the actual assault is some of the worst fight choreography I’ve ever seen. Prostitute Mae’s (Kelsey Hopper) squeaky sensuality brightens her scenes and impoverished mother Hildebrand (Rachel Griesinger) brings some tension to the piece with her chilly demeanor. Otherwise, the acting is stiff and disconnected across the board. Many actors look uncomfortable on stage, particularly when the goofy choreography begins, and line delivery becomes so monotone and dull as the play stretches into hours that it is a chore to watch.

A second intermission is the final nail in the show’s coffin, killing any momentum the lagging production had gathered. Expecting an audience member to wait another ten minutes for the end of a mediocre production is disrespectful, especially when the third act is twenty minutes long.

 
Rating: ★½
 

Street Scene previews March 19 & 20 and opens on March 26 at 8pm. The performances run Thursdays, Fridays Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm to April 25. Tickets are $25. Date night stimulus Thursdays two for one.

        

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