Review: Entertaining Mr. Sloane (Project 891 Theatre)

  
  

Project 891 gives us sly, subversive, down-low Joe Orton

 
 
  Tracy Garrison, David Schaplowsky Aaron Kirby, David Schaplowsky  

Project 891 Theatre presents
 
Entertaining Mr. Sloane
  
Written by Joe Orton
Directed by
Ron Popp
at
City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through March 27  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Project 891 Theatre Company loves to take little trips down memory lane. What they’ve struck upon with Entertaining Mr. Sloane is a period piece wherein audiences may recall the subversion that “gay” once was–and that queer deconstructive politics constantly tries to resurrect. Ron Popp’s direction belies a delicate understanding of each character’s psychological state, yet unstintingly serves up gay transgression in its original down-low incarnation–with all its seedy, low-rent perspective intact.

Tracy Garrison, Aaron Kirby, David SchaplowskyAs such, Project 891’s rough and simple production reinvigorates an interrogation of the pretensions of middle class respectability from a queer position. It is as refreshing as it is dangerous. All the same, be prepared for this production’s emphasis on the emotional more than farcical elements of Joe Orton’s dark comedy. Whether Popp has given us a kinder, gentler slant on Orton’s work is a question worthy of debate—it certainly goes for quieter laughs and for deeply nuanced performance.

Kath (Tracy Garrison) rents out a room to young Mr. Sloane (Aaron Kirby), a self-confessed orphan, in the hopes of someday being able to afford a rest home for her father, Kemp (Gary Murphy). Garrison immediately sets up Kath’s emotional, as well as sexual, neediness in her negotiations with Sloane. Fear of scandal and censure from the neighbors motivates her cover story as a widow—she is actually an unwed mother who had to surrender her child, who would now be Sloane’s age. Garrison accurately conveys the mentality of a woman who has always had to settle for very little, yet persistently, yearningly inches for every little bit more. Her psychologically incestuous attraction to Mr. Sloane only enhances her thinly veiled desperation and wittily contrasts with her neurotic observance of propriety.

Kirby possesses all the handsomeness and charm his role requires. Rather than digging into the salaciousness of his character, however, he projects sly and equanimous content in letting others project their desires upon him. Besides his chemistry with Garrison, it’s a pleasure to watch his Sloane play sexual straight man (if that word can be used) to Ed (David Schaplowsky), Kath’s closeted brother, who shares her obsessions with propriety and terror of social opprobrium. Shaplowsky is never more hilarious than when Ed insists upon the purity of manly virtues, excoriates the conniving lusts of women—particularly his sister—or when he becomes shocked at evidence of Sloane’s coitus with her. In addition, he renders some truthfully tender moments for Ed, in surprising and sympathetic contrast to his usual closeted, social-climbing, misogynist douchebaggery.

Aaron Kirby, Tracy GarrisonGarrison, Kirby and Shaplowsky make a cunning ménage a trois. The trickier part seems to be to integrate Murphy’s performance as Kemp, “the Dada,” into the whole proceedings. Kemp’s initial encounter with Sloane drags and seems leaden, even with its revelation of the terrible secret Kemp has over him. Also, Sloane’s attack on Kemp needs far edgier veracity, both in fight choreography and Sloane’s sudden expressions of psychopathology. This production is terribly interesting, in that it makes a case for Sloane’s pathology being the result of his hypocritical environment—but that cannot be allowed to dull the shock of violence that Orton’s script demands.

Plus, other basic flaws in execution, like dialect slippage and technical trouble with lighting on opening night, keep this production of Entertaining Mr. Sloane from being a truly superlative one. Hopefully, there will be corrections in the course of the run–its delicate and nuanced aspects are truly worth seeing. By the time Ed and Kath have sealed the deal on Sloane, we pity him, for all his murderous tendencies. Old age and treachery shall always overcome youth and skill. Indeed.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

    Tracy Garrison Aaron Kirby, Gary Murphy   

Entertaining Mr. Sloan continues through March 27th, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 8P and Sundays at 2P. Tickets are $15, and can be purchased online. Go to project891theatre.com for more info.

[http://youtu.be/lu6Nk75zM5o]

           

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REVIEW: The Last Night of Ballyhoo (Project 891 Theatre)

    
     

What does it mean to be Jewish at Christmastime?

     
     

Jason Kellerman and Sarah Latin-Kasper

  
Project 891 Theatre Company presents
   
The Last Night of Ballyhoo
   
By Alfred Uhry
Directed by
Jason W. Rost
North Lakeside Cultural Center, 6219 N. Sheridan (map)
Through Dec. 19  |  
tickets: $15  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Should a Jewish Christmas tree be topped with a star? That argument launches The Last Night of Ballyhoo, Alfred Uhry’s delectable examination of Southern Jewish culture in the mid-20th century, now playing in Project 891 Theatre Company’s nearly perfect site-specific production at Edgewater’s historic, 1914 Gunder Mansion (North Lakeside Cultural Center).

The year is 1939 and the place is Atlanta, where the film "Gone with the Wind" is having its premiere, while Hitler has begun his rampages in Europe.

Liz HoffmanHitler seems remote to most of the Freitag family, complacent, long-established, well-to-do Southern Jews of German heritage, as they trim their Christmas tree. They’re part of an ingrained culture so assimilated they barely know what being Jewish is, other than to chafe at the bigotry of the gentiles who keep them from mixing in the South’s highest society. So they create their own, "a lot of dressed-up Jews dancing around wishing they could kiss their elbows and turn into Episcopalians," in turn manifesting their own anti-Semitism against "the other kind" — Jews more recently arrived, more religious, more obviously ethnic.

Uhry mined the true history of the South and his own upbringing here. The play’s name, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, refers to the big society event of the season for the well-heeled Southern Jewish younger set, a cotillion at the exclusive Standard Club.

At the outset, anxious, flighty Lala Levy, one of the daughters of the house, doesn’t yet have a date for this important night. Sensitive, prickly and awkward, Lala is a grave disappointment to her bossy, ambitious mother, Boo, who fears her daughter will never "take." Lala suffers in comparison to her prettier, brighter, collegiate cousin, Sunny Freitag, who shares the family home along with her fond, slightly vague mother, Reba. Boo’s bachelor brother, the long-suffering Adolph Freitag, nominally presides over the household, supporting them all in comfort with the family business, Dixie Bedding Co.

Into this mix comes handsome Joe Farkas, a new and highly valued employee at the firm, Brooklyn-born and unmistakably "one of the other kind." He sets the family at odds on a number of levels, ultimately challenging their perception of what it means to be Jews.

Commissioned for the 1996 Olympic Arts Festival, The Last Night of Ballyhoo, was revised for its Broadway opening the following year. It deservedly received both the Tony and Outer Critics Circle awards for best play, as well as nominations for the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding New Play and the Pulitzer Prize for Drama.

   
Darrelyn Marx and Lori Grupp Liz Hoffman and Austin D Oie

Skillfully staged in the mansion’s wood-paneled front parlor, with seating for just 23, this intimate production features superb acting, notably from the senior members of the cast. Darrelyn Marx excels as the acerbic Boo, pushing and goading her daughter with tough love, portraying this unlikable character with power and empathy. Lori Grupp charms as Reba, and Larry Garner puts in a wonderfully wry performance as Adolph.

Liz Hoffman captures Lala’s painful gracelessness beautifully. Sarah Latin-Kasper makes a serene Sunny, and Jason Kellerman gives Joe a perfect balance between brashness and bewildered sensitivity. His smile when Sunny agrees to a date lights up the room. Austin Oie is hilarious as redheaded Peachy Weil, the well-born Louisiana wiseacre whom Boo hopes to capture for Lala.

For those who prefer their December entertainment without cloying overdoses of sentiment and good cheer, The Last Night of Ballyhoo offers everything a holiday show should have: Great performances, depth, humor and pathos.

    
   
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Note: Allow time to find street parking

  
  

 

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REVIEW: Epic Proportions (Project 891 Theatre)

Shortness on vaudevillian style slows down “Epic Proportions”

 Cole Simon, Anna Shutz, 3

Project 891 Theatre presents:

 

Epic Proportions

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

review by Paige Listerud

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rating: ★★½

 

Matt Lozano and Cole Simon

EXTRA CREDIT:

Opening and Closing this week

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show openings

The Adventures of Nervous Boy Gorilla Tango Theatre

Diva! Diva! Divas!Northwestern University Theater

Jinx Appetite Theatre

The Siren Song of Stephan Jay Gould Gorilla Tango Theatre

Juno and the Paycock The Artistic Home

Savage/Love The Viaduct Theater

A Walk in the Woods Redtwist Theatre

 

Chicago_skyline

show closings

The 9/11 Report La Red Music Theatre

Battleprov ComedySportz 

The Bucktown Stand-Up Show Down Gorilla Tango Theatre

Dead Wrong The Factory Theater

Get Comfortable, a Night of Shorts Gorilla Tango Theatre

Girls vs. Boys American Music Theatre Project and The House Theatre of Chicago

The Great American Nudie Spectacular! Theatre Building Chicago

The Hollow Lands Steep Theatre

Never the Sinner Project 891 Theatre

Scientology! The Unauthorized Musical Annoyance Theatre

Sodomites!!! A Musical of Biblical Proportions Annoyance Theatre

Somewhere in Texas Dream Theatre

Steel Mags Chicago Center for the Performing Arts

Storybox Piven Theatre

Two Spoons Bailiwick Repertory

Walker and Dunn Gorilla Tango Theatre

White Rainbows Gorilla Tango Theatre

Review: Project 891’s “Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story”

 An Ode to the Wrong at Heart

Loeb and Leopold

Project 891 Theatre presents:

Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story
by John Logan
directed by Michael Rashid

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Project 891 Theatre’s first stage venture, Never the Sinner: the Leopold and Loeb Story, resonates with unresolved issues from the last century. These issues continue into the 21st century as part of our unresolved daily discourse: justice, mercy, the cause of callous criminal conduct, the value of human life, the death penalty, sexuality and its causes. When one considers the implications of this play by Academy Award screenwriter John Logan, what amazes is that both the infamous murder and its prosecution are central to the history of Chicago and the nation, yet receive little serious attention today beyond true crime enthusiasts.

Guest director Michael Rashid was completely surprised when the producers offered him the project:

“They sent the script down in front of me at IHOP. We were just heading out for coffee and fries. I had known about the script for a while and had been fascinated with the story from my teens. After seeing Swoon! I was fascinated by the villains, the dark side and, being a gay man myself, the gay relationship in the story. John Logan emphasizes, first and foremost, this is a love story between Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.”

The performances are the greatest power of the production. Matt Hays (Richard Loeb), Ron Popp (Nathan Leopold), Gary Murphy (Clarence Darrow), and Robert Kaercher (Robert Crowe) are its four pillars. Each actor has been cast with precision. Gary Murphy is pitch perfect as the weary, yet undaunted humanist Clarence Darrow. Leopold and Loeb2Matt Hays conveys Loeb’s boyish amoral enthusiasm with humorous but terrifying accuracy. Robert Kaercher’s States Attorney is the quintessential man of his times, in his demeanor, delivery, and over-reliance on expertise to prosecute criminals.

Actors playing the press provide the necessary relief from the heaviness of the play’s themes, but Logan’s first work is not the easiest with which to create an uninterrupted dramatic arc. Its structure contains a lot of stop-and-start from scene to scene and Rashid’s direction has not resolved all those problems, given the spatial limitations of Chemical Imbalance Theatre. The incorporation of a high tech large digital flat screen as backdrop to the simple 1924 set and costuming is effective for the most part, conveying period newsreel footage and images emphasizing Leopold’s fascinations with falcons and Loeb. But it can also be distracting when unnecessarily telegraphing Leopold and Loeb’s relationship.

Ron Popp’s turn as Nathan Leopold, or Babe, is the hardest to warm to. His detached, ratiocinated worldview, his absolute belief in the Nietzschean Superman, provides as much distance between the character and audience as it does between him and the rest of his character’s world. But the play is dead-on in centering his worldview, with its deeper psychological underpinnings, Leopold, Loeb and Clarence Darrow as the prism through which to view Leopold and Loeb’s murder of Bobby Frank. This comes through with painful clarity when psychologists for the state interrogate Leopold and Loeb, expounding on their same-sex affair with the same detached, dissecting, and devaluing analysis that Leopold, in his turn, applies to ornithology, languages, little Bobby Frank’s life, everything.

Everything, that is, except his romance with Loeb, which he casts in fantasy, submission, and erotic wonder. Darrow orders Nathan to put aside all facts and figures, to go the heart of his being, to know truly why he has committed this terrible crime. When Babe answers, “What if my heart is wrong?” it is as if clouds have parted and the mystery becomes crystal clear. So far as the play is concerned, Leopold needs to believe in the Nietzschean Superman, and that he and Loeb are such creatures, so that his heart can have some small hope for survival in the anatomized, meaningless, Modernist world he must live in.

Loeb, Germaine and Leopold The role of Darrow could have been performed as a knight or, heaven forbid, high priest of humanistic truth. But, thankfully, Murphy’s performance gives Darrow’s idealistic moments earthiness, vitality, and accessibility. Where is such an eloquent champion now for the better part of our nature against the death penalty? We do not live in the better future that Darrow pictured himself a part of. We have been under the leadership of people who justified themselves as being above the law and above the rest of humanity. We are still suffering the blowback.

Rating: «««

 

View Never the Sinner - the Leopold and Loeb Story

Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story

Presented by Project 891 Theatre
Where: Chemically Imbalanced Theater, 1420 W. Irving Park Rd.
When: Through Aug 2, 2009
Tickets: $10-$15  (Box Office: 1-800-838-3006)

Pictures taken by Val Bromann.