Review: Chicago One-Minute Play Festival (Victory Gardens)

  
  

OMPF - One Minute Play Festival - Victory Gardens - banner

 

New Festival Showcases Short Works by Local Artists, Sampler-style

 

by Dan Jakes and Oliver Sava

This May 15-16, Victory Gardens premiered Chicago’s first One-Minute Play Festival (OMPF), a benefit event that featured bite-sized works by an eclectic mix of prominent and upcoming local theater artists. Creator and “curator” Dominic D’Andrea originally debuted the series in New York in 2007, where it has since grown to San Francisco and Los Angeles . For its first ever stop in the Midwest, considering the event’s magnitude–50 playwrights, 10 directors, and nearly 60 actors–this year’s showcase demonstrated promising potential for an exciting annual Chicago theater institution.

That is, if it finds a stronger footing. Micro-plays are nothing new, especially in the Windy City, long-time home to the Neo-Futurists’ Too Much Light and Second City; one set the bar for two-minute plays, and the other made one-joke flash bits a sketch trademark. D’Andrea and producer Will Rogers’ OMPF also rides off the larger 10-minute play trend. Their efforts to boil down theater even further, though, prove to be fruitful–sometimes even enlightening. Below is a list of the night’s highlights.

Paper Airplane, Aaron Carter  

     
   The finest piece in the festival. A young boy expresses his anguish over his father’s looming death while tossing folded paper planes across the stage. His ability to speak is limited to the papers’ flight, leaving him choked and frustrated with each audible crash landing. In less than a minute, Carter encapsulates the panic of grief, and animates the cruel handicap children endure to express pain. Those planes approached visual poetry.

Two Vegans, Robert Tenges

     
   A couple engaged in love making–some of it hilariously acrobatic–get their kink on by dirty-talking their favorite (or to cool things off, least favorite: (“raw kale…raw kale!”) foods. At first, it’s funny nonsense. Then, after you uncomfortably internalize your own link between taste/sexual satisfaction, it’s hysterical.

A Play, Kristoffer Diaz

     
   You’re the hero in this monologue. The audience member to your right is the protagonist. Your left, the antagonist. Diaz’s simple, straight-forward instructions don’t feel like a gimmick. His inconclusive end ponders some sophisticated ideas about the broader implications of storytelling, ones that resonate long after the play’s 60 seconds are up.

The Last Walk, Lisa Dillman

     
   Sad pets are an easy go-to for emotional impact…but that doesn’t make using them any less effective. A dog reminisces about the good days with her very recently deceased owner. Confused, she brushes up against his dead body for affection…and if you don’t cry a little at the thought of that, then you’re a monster. Only a few high-pitched “aw’s” were heard in the house during an otherwise hushed fade-to-black.

Inequity, Jake Minton

     
   Penis envy comes early for two little boys (played by full-grown adults, of course) in a school bathroom: One stands proud, pants down and bare-butted at a urinal, while the other sits devastated, hiding his…well, you know. Minton makes a nice little joke about men’s biggest insecurity.

Haiku Fight, Caitlin Montanye Parrish

     
   A couple hashes out an argument by having a refereed 8 Mile-style slam, with Japanese poetry filling in for hip-hop. It’s a simple, wonderfully clever juxtaposition of the writing form’s serenity versus the needling aggravation of a relationship fight.

This Just In, Stephen Louis Grush

     
  Liberal sensibilities about prejudice get turned over on their heads when one easily dismissible stereotype gets paired with one that’s equally unfair, but–for many viewers–may hit a little closer to home. Those might sound like the makings for a didactic issues play. With the right amounts of humor and levity here, they aren’t.

Bag Thief, Laura Jacqmin

     
   A mix-up at an airport luggage carousel leads to suspicion and accusations. Jacqmin doesn’t quite know how to end her play–what she settles for lets the air out of its balloon and betrays her otherwise solid work. Up until the final seconds, though, it’s fun stuff watching two men calmly navigate each other’s logic and contemplate one another’s mind games.

Blackout, Chisa Hutchinson

      
   As the name suggests, Hutchinson’s play takes place with the house and stage lights off. Her monologue discusses nyctophobia (fear of darkness) in friendly, clinical terms. Once she starts in about the ghastly things you could be imagining, it’s hard not to nervously giggle and realize you’re an adult who’s once again–briefly–afraid of the dark.

In Not Our Finest Hour, Andrew Hinderaker

     
   You can spot a gag coming within the first few seconds of this context-free comedy. A line of actors take a swig from a water bottle and pass it on. Anticipation builds; titters slip. The fact that the punch line is exactly what you’d expect compounds the simple humor in this satisfying, straightforward piece.

Wisconsin, Andrew Hinderaker 

     
   Anyone who’s experienced the unique isolation of a rural Midwest winter can attest to the truth and melancholy spoken in this eloquent monologue. A young man describes a blackened hand rising out of the snow. Hinderaker’s vivid image is striking on conflicting levels–it’s unsettling, somber, and in its own way, serene.

Free, Zayd Dohrn

     
   A United States Marine quietly bemoans the chaos of modern war and rejects America’s authoritative façade. His speech is upsetting for all the obvious reasons, and for some less common: notably, the futility of humanitarian efforts and the false hope instilled by the military’s hierarchy.

A Short Story, Emily Schwartz 

     
   A narrator gives up on his own story, much to the protagonist’s chagrin. Schwartz’s non-story leaves the nameless hero waiting and frustrated as the nonchalant storyteller signs off on her would-be adventure. Smart, funny metatheater.

Love Play for Two Chairs, Seth Bockley 

     
   When you think about chairs having sex (though in any other context, why would you?) the word “whimsical” probably doesn’t come to mind. And yet, like an x-rated Fantasia, Bockley and director Jeffrey Stanton achieve just that. Annoyed by the noise of his enchanted furniture getting it on, an apartment owner sets out to end his two chairs’ tryst. His solution is delightfully absurd–the fact that it’s irresistibly adorable makes matters even stranger.

Unsolicited Advice for Next Year’s Fest

Now that the One-Minute Play Festival has taken its first entertaining, successful baby steps in Chicago, here’s what we at we’d would like to see from the show in its future incarnations…

A Greater Assortment of Styles:

Only a few plays in 2011 were noteworthy for really bucking traditional conventions. The message in Gloria Bond Clunie’s Falling about resilience in the face of natural disasters, for instance, wasn’t particularly moving or inspired, but her play stood out from its peers for its striking use of projections and puppetry. That left us with a question: How can the other works of 50 unique artists have looked so homogeneous? Talking animals, inner-monologues, contentless scenes and gripes about public transit bore the brunt of too many shows. No movement pieces? No one-minute musicals? Festival organizers take pride in the lack of dictated thematic guidelines for the playwrights (as they should). Still, there has to be a way to commission a more diverse body of work.

Super-titles:

Many of the short plays benefited from having the names of the shows known; some even took on new light. Dimmed houselights and tiny program font made seeing them impractical–unless you were really straining, you had to do without. An inexpensive or creative way to integrate the show names could further enrich the work.

Clear Intent Behind Curation:

Was there or was there not an intended arc to the evening? We couldn’t tell. Directors took on about 10 plays each, and their pieces were presented together in ten unique “clumps.” The order that clumps were presented in and the plays within them, though, did not have an obvious flow. Perhaps one wasn’t intended–regardless, having one might keep the night as a whole engaging.


The Chicago One-Minute Play Festival is produced as a benefit for Victory Gardens Fresh Squeezed, their alternative programming and audience engagement initiative. With a shared mission, both Fresh Squeezed and the festival aim to represent a wide and diverse range of playwrights, actors, and directors working in the great city of Chicago.

Reviewers: Dan Jakes and Oliver Sava

     
     

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Review: The Gospel According to James (Victory Gardens)

  
  

History is anything but black and white in “Gospel”

  
  

André De Shields as James in Victory Garden's "The Gospel According To James" by Charles Smith (photo: Liz Lauren)

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
  
The Gospel According to James
   
Written by Charles Smith
Directed by Chuck Smith
at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 12  | 
tickets: $35-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

On Aug. 7, 1930, Thomas Shipp and Abram Smith were lynched in the town of Marion, Indiana. The two African-American men allegedly murdered a white local factory worker and raped his white girlfriend. Instead of allowing the justice system to weigh whether the men were truly guilty, the townspeople took the law into their own hands and tore down the jailhouse doors. Beaten and bloody, the bodies of both men were strung up on an tree. Studio photographer Lawrence Beitler managed to immortalize the horrific event, snapping a picture of the bodies swinging from the tree as a crowd of joyful onlookers stand below. Today, that picture serves as a powerful and grizzly reminder of the consequences of racial intolerance.

Kelsey Brennan as Mary and Tyler Jacob Rollinson as Abe Smith in Charles Smith’s "The Gospel According to James. (photo: Liz Lauren)No one knows precisely what events transpired that led to the charges against Thomas and Abram. James Cameron, a third black man initially identified as an accomplice to the crime, was spared from death at the hands of the mob. He would later state in interviews that he fled the seen before the murder took place. Marie Ball, the woman who was allegedly raped, would later testify that she was, in fact, never raped.

This ambiguity makes the case of Thomas and Abram ripe for speculation. And so playwright Charles Smith has embarked on crafting a script that dramatizes what may have transpired throughout those days leading up to the lynching. What results is an intriguing work of historical fiction that wisely steers away from tired cliché and instead focuses on the inherent flaws of memory.

The play is about an imagined meeting between James Cameron (portrayed by André De Shields and Anthony Peeples) and Marie Ball (portrayed by Linda Kimbrough and Kelsey Brennan). Fate has brought them back to Marion. In the passing years, Cameron has taken it upon himself to be the vocal historian of that tragic night. His account parallels that of the real-life history of the event: Abram (Tyler Jacob Rollinson) and Thomas (Wardell Julius Clark) held up former foundry worker Claude (Zach Kenney), and before the murder occurred, Cameron fled the scene.

But Marie does not remember it this way. She resents Cameron for spreading lies and threatens to reveal her version of the truth to the public. As Marie recounts her recollection of the events that led to that ugly night, we see her memories take dramatic form. According to her, Claude was hardly an innocent victim. James was more involved than he claims to be. And she and Thomas were much more than mere acquaintances. But despite her compelling account, Marie’s cognizance is called into question, and we are forced to wonder whose story, if anyone’s, is the real deal.

The cast is captivating. Shields is energetic and expressive as the aged James, while Kimbrough serves as an effective forlorn foil. Meanwhile, the scenes between Marie’s parents (portrayed by Diane Kondrat and Christopher Jon Martin) are powerful, while Kenney is a believable slime ball. There is real chemistry between Rollinson and Brennan, which makes Abram’s lynching that much more heartbreaking. Peeples is the only odd man out here. His portrayal of the youthful version of James is cartoonishly juvenile. He speaks in a childlike tone and talks like an imbecile. This is a complete disconnect from the adult James, who is well spoken and refined.

Smith is a smart playwright. He could have used the Marion lynching as a platform to soapbox about the ills of racism, a trite topic that always falls on agreeable ears. Instead, he focuses on memory and the subjectiveness of history. This is a much more interesting subject to parse, and he does a good job of portraying it dramatically. However, there are a few bumps in the script, particularly when the dialogue veers too far into poetry, creating a sense of melodrama.

Victory Gardens’ production of The Gospel According to James is an engaging fictional account of a historical event. Despite its minor flaws, the solid acting and a strong script prevail, making it a thoroughly entertaining watch.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Anthony Peeples as Apples, Kelsey Brennan as Mary and Wardell Julius Clark as Tommy Shipp in Charles Smith’s "The Gospel According To James" at Victory Gardens Theatre (photo: Liz Lauren)

Ticket Prices: $35-$50, Students with I.D.- $20, and can be purchased by phone 773.871.3000 or via e-mail (tickets@victorygardens.org).   Performance Times: Tues-Saturday: 7:30pm, Saturday Matinee: 4pm, Sunday Matinee: 3pm, Wednesday Matinee: 2pm.   Recommended Age: 16 & up

  
  

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Review: Tree (Victory Gardens Theater)

  
  

Uncovered secrets create new roots for a Chicago family

     
     

Celeste Williams as Jessalyn in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
Tree
   
Written by Julie Hébert
Directed by Andrea J. Dymond
at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $20-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

What defines a family? Is it common blood? Shared experiences? In Julie Hébert’s Tree, this is the major question South-side Chicagoan Leo (Aaron Todd Douglas) faces when his half-sister Didi Marcantel (Elaine Rivkin) tells him his biological father has died. Didi has come up from Louisiana in hopes of retrieving the letters her father Ray wrote to Leo’s now-senile mother Jessalyn (Celeste Williams) when they were youths, hoping to find an emotional connection to her father’s past that was absent in their present relationship. As Didi tries to latch on to the last bit of family she has left, Leo’s contempt for his white father pushes her away, punishing Didi for her father’s abandonment. Anchored by a stunning central performance from Williams, Tree examines the effect one man had on the people he left behind, and how his death brings them together.

Celeste Williams as Jessalyn and Leslie Ann Sheppard as JJ in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.Hébert’s script combines lush lyricism with realistic, intellectual discourse to create a strong distinction between the emotional experience of Jessalyn remembering her letters with the conflict between Leo and Didi. In an incredibly difficult role, Williams does a complete transformation when she revisits her past, altering her voice and body to suggest a woman considerably younger. Although her exact illness isn’t revealed, Jessalyn shows signs of Alzheimer’s, experiencing the occasional moment of clarity but largely forgetful and confused. There’s a scattered energy to Jessalyn’s older characterization that becomes focused when she remembers Ray, and the audience is transported by Hébert’s rich imagery and romantic prose, making the reality of Jessalyn’s illness all the more heartbreaking. Williams’ performance takes us inside the car where she had her first accident (without a license) and to that all-important lake where Ray snuck into the tree without her looking. We fly and fall with her, and she’s the standout in a production full of stellar performances.

Race relations are a large part of Tree, but they never overshadow the larger theme of family. It reminds me of another great play from this season, Route 66’s Twist Of Water (which reopened this week at the Mercury Theatre), sharing a Chicago setting along with a similar ability to tackle racial and gender issues in that is smart but still emotionally powerful. They’re both concerned with finding a definition of family that goes beyond the traditional ideas, and perhaps most significantly, they’re both very funny. More than anything, these plays are saved from melodrama by the humor the playwrights put in the script. Watching fish-out-of-water Didi try to adapt to Leo’s South side hospitality is consistently amusing, and Rivkin’s sweet, amiable portrayal of the good-natured Didi makes Leo’s lashing out against her especially unfair.

     
Celeste Williams, Aaron Todd Douglas and Elaine Rivkin in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren. Celeste Williams and Aaron Todd Douglas in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.
Celeste Williams as Jessalyn and Leslie Ann Sheppard as JJ in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren. Elaine Rivkin in a scene from Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

Douglas captures the pain that lies underneath Leo’s anger, but his character flaw is that he is constantly jumping to conclusions without all the facts. Didi is trying to connect with her half-brother, the only blood kin she has left, and Leo accuses her of needing to assuage her white liberal guilt. He passes judgments on her lifestyle without any real knowledge about it, but can’t take it when Didi dishes it right back at him. The two performers have wonderful chemistry together, and they aggravate each other so easily it’s easy to see a sibling resemblance. Leo, Didi, and Jessalyn are all looking for a Ray Mercantel that doesn’t exist anymore, and their frustrations push them to react aggressively, both in positive and negative ways. Didi pushes a relationship on Leo, Leo forces Didi away, and Jessalyn – well, you never know what Jessalyn is going to do next.

Elaine Rivkin and Aaron Todd Douglas in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.While the older characters are reeling from Ray’s death, Leo’s daughter JJ (Leslie Ann Sheppard) serves as a witness to the growing instability among them and a voice of reason in the emotional whirlwind of Leo’s home. The consistently wonderful Sheppard gives JJ a cheerful disposition that is immediately welcoming, but she also gives JJ some grit. She doesn’t share her father’s prejudice toward Didi, but when Didi starts snooping around for Ray’s letters, JJ goes into a rage that reveals how protective she is of her fragile father and grandmother.

Andrea J. Dymond directs a deeply moving, incredibly funny production (seriously, Jessalyn gets some amazing one liners) with an integrity in acting and design that elevates Hébert’s script. Jacqueline and Rick Penrod’s set design evokes the title of the play with fanned wooden planks above the actors and a stack of boxes creating a tree trunk through Leo’s home, making Didi’s inspection of the containers a literal dig through her family roots. Charlie Cooper’s lighting evokes the different settings of Jessalyn’s monologues, and beautifully reflects her changing moods, switching from cool blues and warm oranges for her past to stark red for her most extreme moments of confusion and terror. All the elements combine for one powerful examination of the meaning of family, and in the end, family is who will be there for you when times are hardest. Family isn’t blood or experience, it’s compassion.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Celeste Williams, Aaron Todd Douglas and Elaine Rivkin in Victory Garden's 'Tree', written by Julie Hébert. Photo by Liz Lauren.

     

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Review: Circle Mirror Transformation (Victory Gardens)

 
 

Changing others for good, sometimes forever

  
  

Steve Key, Joseph D. Lauck, Rae Gray, Lori Myers, and Carmen Roman in a scene from Victory Garden's 'Circle Mirror Transformation'.

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
   
Circle Mirror Transformation
  
Written by Annie Baker
Directed by Dexter Bullard
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $35-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Slow and steady wins the race, so they say. In less than two hours, Annie Baker’s justly praised drama marches to its own different drummer as it covers a fairly uneventful six weeks in the course of a community-theater adult class for “Creative Drama” in the small town of Shirley, Vermont. (Don’t worry—This gentle character drama has none of the cruelty of Waiting for Guffman.) Dexter Bullard’s local premiere explains why New York went a bit crazy over this minimalist masterwork, where less is so much more than more ever was.

Carmen Roman looks on as 2 of her students go through an acting exercise in Victory Garden's 'Circle Mirror Transformation'.“Creative” is the operative word, because the four students and one teacher aren’t ramping up to a real rehearsal of an actual play, let alone a finished production. Teacher Marty (Carmen Roman,as a mentor with miseries) leads the hopeful thespians in a series of touchy-feely theater games and emotive exercises. These build a lot more trust and self-esteem than they could ever nurture trained acting that could actually be used to earn a living. (They resemble the Viola Spolin-style Method-acting tricks spoofed in the song “Nothing” from A Chorus Line.)

But the fact that Marty puts technique far above content perfectly suits this still-waters-run-deep comedy. The “transformation” in the title refers to the barely perceptible ways in which people change each other for good and sometimes forever. Baker doesn’t bother to explain how or why they do it. Much is left unspoken but not unfelt, even when the action seems one protracted non sequitur.

Besides Roman’s conflicted instructor, we meet Lauren (a concentrated Rae Gray), a seemingly surly, very complicated 16-year-old who really does want to act and craves a chance to be someone other than a complicated teenager who really does want to act. She bonds with her opposite, 55-year-old James (Joseph D. Lauck, hiding far more than he shows, especially about his relationship with Marty): James has his own domestic backstory which he wants to escape from, not draw upon as the games require. Lori Myers energizes Theresa, the new girl in town, who finds herself drawn to now-available Schultz (Steve Key), an estranged husband who’s shy and a tad too sensitive even for this situation.

Lori Myers and Carmen Roman in 'Circle Mirror Transformation' at Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre in ChicagoThe games they “play” yield a series of “Truth or Consequences” moments of truth: In one devastating moment, they read each other’s darkest secrets: We can only guess whose they really are. What’s most amazing over the course of the play is the occasional “reenactments” in which one student plays another: From the depth and detail of the portrayals you realize just how much quality time they’ve spent together.

The fact that not much happens here is exactly the point – and for many theatergoers that, alas, may be exactly the problem. Nothing epic sparks the story. But Baker has created a theatrical complement to real life. Their assorted epiphanies, turning points and kinetic breakthroughs are few and far between, especially in a span as short as six weeks. Just because the life-changing stuff doesn’t happen often or as expected doesn’t mean that what’s left doesn’t deserve the respect of a dramatic depiction. Circle Mirror Transformation is very respect-full.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Steve Key, Joseph D. Lauck, Rae Gray, Lori Myers, and Carmen Roman in a scene from Victory Garden's 'Circle Mirror Transformation'.

Circle Mirror Transformation continues thru April 17th at Victory Gardens Biograph Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map), with performance Tues-Saturday: 8pm, Saturday matinee: 4pm, Sunday matinee: 2pm, and Wednesday matinee at 2pm.  Tickets are $35-$50 and can be purchased online or by calling 773-871-3000.

  
  

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REVIEW: The Boys Room (Victory Gardens Theater)

  
  

Victory Gardens creates powerful portrait of family paralysis

  
  

Allison Torem and Mary Ann Thebus in Victory Gardens 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren.

  
Victory Gardens Theater presents
   
The Boys Room
  
Written by Joel Drake Johnson
Directed by Sandy Shinner
at Victory Garden’s Biograph Theater, 4233 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $35-$50  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Because the recession has foreclosed so many homes, a lot of “boomerang kids” have returned to the nest–to the confusion of parents who thought they’d seen the last of them. It’s even more poignant if, 30 years after they supposedly left home, two middle-aged guys have returned to the sender, so to speak. That’s the bittersweet case in The Boys Room, Joel Drake Johnson’s moving portrait of two stunted sons and their arrested development.

Steve Key and Joe Dempsey in 'The Boys Room' at Victory Gardens. Photo by Liz Lauren.A Victory Gardens Theater world premiere richly staged by Sandy Shinner, this 90-minute slice of loss exposes the longings of two brothers’ midlife crises. Then there are the women—a mother and a son’s daughter—who contend with the brothers’ dangerous nostalgia (or regression) for their safe, secure upstairs bedroom.

Sibling rivalry is only one of the reversions that become blasts from the past. Jobless and in a troubled marriage, Tim (Steve Key) is now curled up in his childhood bed by the window: There he reads “Jane Eyre” to help his daughter in her English class, then cries himself to sleep each night. To his rage, he’s soon joined by his older brother Ron (Joe Dempsey), a grizzled dentist who left his wife and daughter because he couldn’t deal with the former’s breast cancer. (You hear “This is MY room!” a lot here.)

The brothers’ “odd couple” obviously disrupt the peaceful life of their aging mother Susan (Mary Ann Thebus), who just wants to learn Spanish so she can enjoy her elderly Latino lover all the more. Her well-earned retirement has been disrupted by all the unpacked emotional baggage her “boys” have brought home along with a lot of laundry she refuses to do. (She compares Tim’s restlessness upstairs to having “a rat rustling in the room.”)

Enraged at her father’s desertion, Ron’s teenage daughter Roann (Allison Torem) has been sent by her mom to find out Ron’s plans for any future they can forge. It’s up to her grandmother to give 16-year-old Roann the strength to endure what her sons have yet to master. In her final speech she remembers how the death of their father almost destroyed the family but, if they got through that, then…

             
Steve Key, Mary Ann Thebus and Joe Dempsey in 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren. Allison Torem and Mary Ann Thebus in Victory Gardens 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson. Photo by Liz Lauren.

This is not your usual dysfunctional-family dark comedy where sitcom crises mount with the laugh track, only to have recriminations replaced by reconciliation. Johnson has a great ear for loud desperation and the self-sustaining logic of failure and the pitilessness of pity. There are no happy resolutions here, just simple survival. That makes this play far kinder to its audience’s collective intelligence than all the wishful thinking that makes for second-act hugs and unearned happy endings.

Shinner’s staging is equally grown-up. There’s obvious humor in two loser husbands turning back into whining boys, reenacting old games that made them feel safer and wanting mommy to make everything right. But Key’s Tim is far too damaged to be healed by memory-mongering, while Dempsey’s explosive Ron is paralyzed with self-loathing.

Forward facing where the men are sinking into a bogus boyhood, the women are far stronger souls. Thebus’ tough-loving Susan is a rich mix of resilience and resignation, unwilling to indulge this second childhood one second more than she needs to. Equally remarkable, Torem’s anguished adolescent conjures up all the collateral damage of broken homes and makes it as specific as a scream.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Steve Key and Joe Dempsey in Victory Garden's 'The Boys Room' by Joel Drake Johnson.  Photo by Liz Lauren.

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REVIEW: The Story of My Life (Chicago Muse)

  
  

Strong performances buried under clichéd story

 the story of my life - poster

   
Chicago Muse presents
   
The Story of My Life
   
Music/Lyrics by Neil Bartram
Book by
Brian Hill
Directed by
Richard Maltby, Jr.
Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through January 2  |  tickets: $46-$56  |  more info 

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The inaugural production of new company Chicago Muse, The Story of My Life was voted the best new musical of twelve read by a committee of theater patrons and professionals. Walking out of the Biograph Theater, I couldn’t help but wonder what those other shows were, that they couldn’t beat Bartram and Hill’s uninspired musical. Chronicling the friendship between recently deceased Alvin (Davis Duffield) and his estranged best friend Thomas (Jack Noseworthy), The Story of My Life tries to fit as many clichés as possible in its 90 minute running time.

 

davis-duffield

jack-noseworthy

Thomas, a renowned novelist, struggles to write Alvin’s eulogy, and as he recalls the history of their relationship he learns to appreciate the role Alvin played in his creative success. The characters share an affinity for Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” and Mark Twain’s “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer”, and the show’s book is heavily influenced by both iconic American creators. Alvin and Clarence are Clarence and George, watching the events of the past, or Huck Finn and Tom Sawyer, secretly spying on funerals. What they’re not is captivating characters, and their relationship is as unbelievable as it is unoriginal.

Once the pair grows into adolescence it becomes difficult to believe that the charming, collected Thomas would maintain a friendship with the socially awkward Alvin, who still dresses as the ghost of his dead mother for Halloween (yes…still). As adults, the two men sing songs about butterflies and snow angels to recall the times they shared as children, but the result is so cheesy that it’s hard to take seriously.

The conflict of the latter half is basically the two falling out of touch because Thomas avoids Alvin, which doesn’t translate to very compelling theater yet takes up a large chunk of time. By the time Thomas finally realizes Alvin was his inspiration all along, which the audience knew five minutes into the show, the production has already lost most of its momentum, despite the efforts of its talented stars.

Both the story and music of The Story of My Life owe much to Stephen Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along and Sunday in the Park with George. Merrily’s theme of friends and their influence on an individual’s creative growth is combined with Sunday’s meditations on the limits artists place on themselves, and both shows’ musical themes are reflected in Bartram’s score. The general lack of originality drags down the show, even though.Duffield and Noseworthy are capable performers, with Noseworthy hitting some particularly difficult notes with fantastic clarity and power. They try their hardest to make their characters realistic, but the source material’s flaws overcome their respective efforts. While the two actors never miss a beat, the beats are so derivative that, unfortunately, their talent is wasted.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
   

 Extra Credit:

     
     

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Review: At Home At The Zoo (Victory Gardens Biograph)

 

A fascinating evening at the ‘Zoo’

 Tom Amandes and Marc Grape - photo by Liz Lauren

 
Victory Gardens Theater presents
  
At Home At The Zoo
  
Written by Edward Albee  
Directed by Dennis Zacek
Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Halsted (map)
through October 31  |   tickets: $35 – $50 |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

“You are very good in bed,”  a wife tells her husband with imploring sincerity during the Edward Albee’s  Homelife, “I just wish you’d be bad once in a while.”  So goes the one-act piece’s conversation of domestic crisis,  an emotionally complex and elegantly worded discourse between a long-time couple, deeply in love with each other and deeply restless within lives of sheltered security.

By pairing Albee’s new work Homelife with his career-launching The Zoo Story, the Victory Gardens Theater creates a mostly fascinating evening.  Alone, The Zoo Story is a harshly compelling, self-contained  cryptogram of a play – nasty, brutish, violent and short and embedded with disturbing questions about the origin of its violence. Seen with Homelife, The Zoo Story receives a rich, contextual background that makes the piece blaze with heightened immediacy.

To see The Zoo Story is to recoil in shock as an encounter on a Central Park bench moves from civilized pleasantries to bestial bloodsport. The Tom Amandes and Annabel Armour - photo by Liz Laurentransition is both inexorable and unexpected. With a final, stabbing climax, Albee makes his audience confront more than a few scary concepts. Among them: The tragic fruit of incurable isolation and the disquieting notion that for some people, the world will always be an unwelcoming and awful place. Then there’s the whole idea that no matter how well you insulate yourself – no matter how carefully you cocoon yourself with the trappings of a stable home and family and career – you cannot protect yourself from random outbreaks of life-altering chaos. Your well-appointed home, loving wife and pleasant career can’t save you from mayhem.

Directed by Dennis Zacek, both Homelife and The Zoo Story (produced together as “At Home At The Zoo”) make for a provocative production. The primary problem with the evening is that Homelife is more of a prolonged set-up for The Zoo Story than a drama that can stand on its own. Even so, the issues of the upper-middle class white couple Peter (Tom Amandes) and Ann (Annabel Armour) are delivered with sharp-shooter precision straight to the core of the heart.

Armour’s Ann captures the yearning dissatisfaction of someone trapped in a gilded cage, a spirit so completely tamed that only a flickering spark of its original self remains. That spark, however, is enough to ignite a wildfire of discontent.  When Peter protests that the couple long ago made a decision to live their lives as a  “pleasant journey,” and to “stay away from icebergs,” Ann counters that decades within that safety have left her pining for something “you can’t imagine,” something “terrifying, astonishing, chaotic and mad.”  That yearning is exquisitely rendered by Armour. Live your life as a placid and wholly secure voyage, Ann notes, and you never even really die – you just sort of “vanish.” There’s undeniable terror in that view of the end: Is there anything more scary than the prospect of reaching the end of your life only to realize you’ve never fully lived it? In Homelife, Albee convincingly argues that there is not.

Yet for all the incendiary dialogue of  Homelife, “A Home At The Zoo” doesn’t fully start clicking until its second act with The Zoo Story, when Marc Grapey bursts onto the stage as the unbalanced Jerry. He’s a hilarious loose cannon as the sort of crazy New Yorker whose tone of voice falls just short of overt menace  and whose overall presence is both clownish and embedded with an unmistakable threat of implicit danger.

Tom Amandes - Annabel Armour - Liz Lauren photographer2 Tom Amandes and Marc Grape - photo by Liz Lauren 2
Tom Amandes and Marc Grape - photo by Liz Lauren 4 Tom Amandes  - Annabel Armour - Liz Lauren photographer

Albee’s contrast between Peter and Ann – a couple so sheltered they’ve lost all track of their own, authentic cores  – and Jerry, whose raw exposed soul is buffeted on all sides by the world’s unkind wildness – is striking and vividly depicted by this pitch-perfect ensemble.

As Peter, Amandes is the very soul of quiet desperation – until he’s not. When Peter finally unleashes the primal howl that he’s squelched for years, the moment is one of supreme destruction and catharsis.  Armour’s Ann is equally powerful in a more subtle manner, mining deeply rooted dissatisfaction and plumbing the fearsome depths of subconscious with intense bravery and dogged effort. And then there’s Grapey, spinning a world of lucid delirium (not as paradoxical as it sounds) and forcing Peter to let loose the great and terrible beast within.  It’s a powerhouse performance, a whirlwind of tragedy and comedy, of inconsolable sorrow and impish playfulness.

Zacek sees that the cast makes the most of Albee’s profound and lacerating dialogue, shaping the trio into a tight-knit ensemble leading its audience into confrontation with some of the darkest pockets of the human condition.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
  
Tom Amandes and Marc Grape - photo by Liz Lauren 3 Tom Amandes and Annabel Armour - photo by Liz Lauren 2