2011 Non-Equity Jeff Award Winners!

Jeff Awards Chicago header

2011 Non-Equity Jeff Award Recipients

Monday, June 6th 2011

32 different companies were recognized going into the 2011 non-Equity Joseph Jefferson Awards. The Hypocrites, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre and Lifeline Theatre had the most nominations. Redtwist Theatre was close behind while scoring 3 out of the 6 Best Play Production nominations. The non-equity Jeff Awards got off to a bang at the Park West Monday night with a lively Red Carpet show broadcast online prior (pictures), hosted by Eric Roach and Anderson Lawfer. The awards show was hosted by Kevin Bellie of Circle Theatre. It kicked off with a musical number from Theo Ubique’s Cats. After the parade of nominees, and a Lady Gaga bit performed by Bellie, the awards were doled out. The awards did not go off without a hitch, as the Best Director of a Musical was at first awkwardly announced incorrectly. Here’s how everything played out:

2011 NON-EQUITY JEFF AWARD RECIPIENTS

PRODUCTION / PLAY

Man from Nebraska Redtwist Theatre 

PRODUCTION / MUSICAL

Cabaret – The Hypocrites

DIRECTOR / PLAY

Jimmy McDermott   (Three Faces of Doctor Crippen, The Strange Tree Group)
James Palmer   (The Love of the Nightingale, Red Tape Theatre

DIRECTOR / MUSICAL

Matt Hawkins   (Cabaret, The Hypocrites)

ENSEMBLE

Shakespeare’s King Phycus, The Strange Tree Group w/ Lord Chamberlain’s Men

ACTOR IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE / PLAY

Chuck Spencer in Man from Nebraska, Redtwist Theatre

ACTOR IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE / MUSICAL

Andrew Mueller in Big River, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

ACTRESS IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE / PLAY

Caroline Neff in Helen of Troy, Steep Theatre Company
Nicole Wiesner in First Ladies, Trap Door Theatre

ACTRESS IN A PRINCIPAL ROLE / MUSICAL

Jessie Fisher in Cabaret, The Hypocrites

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE / PLAY

Brian Perry in Shining City, Redtwist Theatre

ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE / MUSICAL

Courtney Crouse in Big River, Bohemian Theatre Ensemble

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTNG ROLE / PLAY

Sara Pavlak in Agnes of God, Hubris Productions

ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE / MUSICAL OR REVUE

Kate Harris in Cabaret, The Hypocrites

NEW WORK

Emily Schwartz for The Three Faces of Doctor Crippen, The Strange Tree Group

NEW ADAPTATION

Robert Kauzlaric for Neverwhere, Lifeline Theatre

CHOREOGRAPHY

Brenda Didier for Cats, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

ORIGINAL INCIDENTAL MUSIC

Chris Gingrich, Henry Riggs, Thea Lux, and Tara Sissom That Sordid Little Story,  The New Colony

MUSIC DIRECTION

Austin Cook for Some Enchanted Evening: The Songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

SCENIC DESIGN

Alan Donahue for Neverwhere, Lifeline Theatre

LIGHTING DESIGN

Jared Moore for No Exit, The Hypocrites

COSTUME DESIGN

Matt Guthier for Cats, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre
Alison Siple for Cabaret, The Hypocrites

SOUND DESIGN

Mikhail Fiksel for Neverwhere, Lifeline Theatre

ARTISTIC SPECIALIZATION

Glen Aduikas, Rick Buesing, Mike Fletcher, Salvador Garcia, Stuart Hecht, David Hyman, Terry Jackson, Don Kerste, Bruce Phillips, Al Schilling, Lisi Stoessel, Eddy Wright – Robot design and engineering for Heddatron, Sideshow Theatre Company

Izumi Inaba: Makeup Design for Cats, Theo Ubique Cabaret Theatre

  
  

Review: Nunsense (Metropolis Performing Arts Centre)

     
     

Old habits die hard

     
     

Nunsense2

   

Metropolis Performing Arts Centre presents

    
    

Nunsense

   
Book, Music and Lyrics by Dan Goggin
Directed by David Belew
at Metropolis Performing Arts Centre, Arlington Heights (map)
through June 19  | 
tickets: $35-$43  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost and Dan Jakes

At times, it seems that contemporary nuns exist solely for the purpose of parody. Dan Goggin’s 1985 musical Nunsense, stemming from his line of nun-humored greeting cards, was revolutionary when it came onto the scene with the inappropriate light it shed on the Sisters from Hoboken. Presently, Catholics aren’t in a great place for satire. Financial trouble, dwindling numbers, lawsuits and mainstream appeasement make the once-dominant entity lean closer to the Little Man than the Oppressor. Satire, of course, is all about poking holes in austerity and knocking the Big Man of his ladder; the Church has done a fine job of that on its own. Goggin’s play is more of a Nunsense3nostalgia-bath than a roast, but even so, with Catholics dismissing old-school severity and hands-off ornamentation in favor of a more accessible image, jokes dependent on being silly or naughty with full-habit donned sisters just don’t have the pop they used to. Nevertheless, Metropolis’ production certainly rejuvenates the undeniable phenomenon.

The morbidly clever conceit is that 52 Sisters have died after being poisoned by the convent cook, Sister Julia Child….of God. The surviving nuns were at bingo that night and skipped out on the killer soup. In order to raise money to bury the remaining dead nuns, Sister Mary Regina (Nancy Kolton) organizes a nun-produced fundraiser talent show. The proceedings offer belting nuns, the amnesiac nuns, the cooking nuns, the nuns getting stoned, the nuns kick line-dancing, the nuns shuddering at the scandalous length of Marilyn Monroe‘s skirt, and the nuns mispronouncing pop culture references. Mere redundant gags, they aren’t. No, these are test subjects, empirical data in an unscrupulous study that combs every aspect of convent-oriented humor which lead to the likes of Sister Act and Late Nite Catechism.

When entering Metropolis’ gorgeous Arlington Heights performing arts centre, you may think you’re entering the space of ATC’s Original Grease as the scenic designer, Michael Gehmlich, has created a set that perfectly mimics an old Catholic high school gym-atorium with glittery hand painted Grease posters complimented with Jesus on the cross in stained-glass illuminated above in the rafters. Yousif Mohamed’s lighting design expertly fills the expanse of the space and the light shifts play to the comedy sharply.

Director David Belew draws crisp energetic performances from his talented cast. Kristen Gurbach Jacobson’s choreography is the perfect mix of skill, camp and parody. The multi-talented Nancy Kolton as Sister Mary Regina ultimately carries the show by investing everything into the role, including a hysterical drug trip in which she gives her whole body to. Amy Malouf (Sister Mary Robert Anne) notably ascends above the sentimentality with her spot-on Brooklyn accent and her performance of “I Just Want to Be a Star.”

Nunsense4

The success Nunsense and its sequels have enjoyed over the past two and half decades is nothing to shake a ruler at. You might even call Goggin’s shows “Nunsations” (oh wait, he already gave sequel number six that title). After glancing around at the Metropolis audience, it was easy to see why: buried shallowly under stabs at modernization (Snooki and Donald Trump references, anyone?), this nun-humor is an excuse to reminisce. Current and recovering Catholic school alumni eat up an allusion to student-herding clickers. The rest of the proceedings are slathered in well-meaning silliness and elbow-nudging puns.

If you did happen to grow up going to Catholic school, and you haven’t experienced Nunsense, Metropolis’ production is about as fun as this show gets, so “get thee to a nun-…” well, just check out this fine revival of a silly musical sensation that seems to be sticking around at least as long as there are baby boomers still around to repent.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Nunsense1

Performances of Nunsense continue through June 19th. Schedule varies week to week and includes evening and matinee performances. The running time is approximately 2 hours with one intermission. Tickets range $35 – 43 and can be purchased online at www.metropolisarts.com or by calling the Box Office at 847.577.2121.

     
     

Continue reading

Review: Three Days of Rain (Backstage Theatre)

        
        

Another memorable production from Backstage

  
  

Rebekah Ward-Hays & John Henry Roberts - Three Days of Rain

   
Backstage Theatre Company presents
       

Three Days of Rain

  
  
Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by Matthew Reeder
at the
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through June 25  |  tickets: $10-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

We are often fascinated by the story of who our parents were before they had children since it is essentially how we came to exist. It helps us understand the lives of the most influential people in your life, and it guides us in our own quest for love and self definition. This idea played a large role in Backstage Theatre Company’s Memory, their impressive first play of their season. Other times these stories, as is the case in Richard Greenberg’s Three Days of Rain (known to many theatergoers as the play Julia Roberts flatly debuted in on Broadway), can be a great mystery to obsess upon for years. The overriding mystery is what binds six fascinating characters together played by three actors. Artistic Director Matthew Reeder’s direction in this Backstage production is strikingly human, intimate and traipses through these characters’ lives like a lone jazz trumpet traveling through time accompanied by well-suited recordings of Miles Davis doing the real thing.

Rebekah Ward-Hays & Tony BozzutoIn present day downtown Manhattan (or maybe more so the mid-90’s if you really do the math on years referenced) we meet Walker (John Henry Roberts) in a sparse spacious apartment. He is intellectual, searching and a narcissist. After disappearing in Italy his family had thought him dead. More specifically, his sister Nan (Rebekah Ward-Hays) and his old friend Pip (Tony Bozzuto) thought so. Upon finding his recently deceased father’s journal, Walker attempts to decipher the cryptic seemingly commonplace entries. Walker believes that his parents “married because by 1960 they had reached a certain age and they were the last ones left in the room.” Nan struggles with Walker’s return and his obsession with their father’s journal. Pip, a soap-opera star, has history with Nan, and Walker was – or still is – in love with him, causing interesting tension when any combination of the three of them is on stage.

Walker and Nan’s father Ned (also played by Roberts) was a great architect, or at least built one impressive house. Pip is the son of their father’s partner, Theo. In the second act Bozzuto, Roberts and Ward-Hays all take on the roles of their parents in the 1960’s. Greenberg’s writing is smart in how it takes certain words or phrases you hear in the first act and sprinkles them in the second act, showing you the roots of these ultimately poetic characters in linguistic parallels. We bear witness to all that Walker, Nan and Pip could not possibly know even if the stories were retold or handed down. They would have changed as all stories do through the course of history. Nevertheless, a few small words which Ned (Walker and Nan’s father) writes down carries all the weight in the world for each character involved in this play. Even if the meaning of those words died with Ned, they still have impacted the lives of these people profoundly whether the truth is known or not.

The performances of these six difficult characters to play are worthy. The hurdle is portraying two different characters that are clueless to what the other knows and yet finding the connection between them. John Henry Roberts was stiff at times on opening night and hit an occasional false note as Walker at first, but he eventually relaxed into the role and became fascinating during the ritual that ends the act. As Walker’s father, Ned, he brings a very different character to the stage that is vivacious and electric to watch. Ward-Hays is magnificent in her balance of anger and love as Nan, and then in her dreamier and more sexually charged performance as Lina. Bozzuto is dynamic displaying an exciting capability for detailed physical choices.

          
Tony Bozzuto & John Henry Roberts in Backstage Theatre's "Three Days of Rain" by Richard Greenberg. (photo: Hays)  Rebekah Ward-Hays & Tony Bozzuto in Backstage Theatre's "Three Days of Rain" by Richard Greenberg. (photo: Hays)
Tony Bozzuto in Backstage Theatre's "Three Days of Rain" by Richard Greenberg. (photo: Hays) Rebekah Ward-Hays & John Henry Roberts

Reeder makes a brilliant choice opening the second act by allowing the characters of Theo and Ned to spend the first couple minutes transforming the space in front of our eyes, bringing life into the abandoned apartment and turning it into an invigorating Manhattan architectural workspace of the 1960’s. It’s the same apartment as in the first act, but the makeover of the room is akin to time travel. Brandon Wardell’s set fills the Viaduct space perfectly, and his lighting on the windows does wonders to create the ambiance of the physical and emotional setting.

Greenberg’s non-linear storytelling is thought-provoking as only we, the audience, know the true gravitas of the words, “Three days of rain,” which Ned enters into his journal. However, perhaps this is the nature of history; it can never be retold exactly, nor needs to be. Walker and Nan come to their own necessary closure with their parents’ ambiguous history, and their father took his memories to the grave. What’s clear is that Backstage Theatre Company continues to excel in creating memories for theatergoers that are definitely unforgettable.

    
  
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Rebekah Ward-Hays & John Henry Roberts

Performances for Three Days of Rain run every Thursday through Saturday at 7 p.m. and every Sunday at 3 p.m., from May 20th through June 25th. No performance June 16th, added performance Monday, June 6th at 7:00 p.m. General admission tickets are $25, senior tickets are $22, and student tickets (with a valid ID) are $10. Group rates are available. Tickets are available through the Viaduct Theatre by phone, (773) 296-6024. For more information about BackStage Theatre Company and Three Days of Rain, visit www.backstagetheatrecompany.org.

     

     
     

Continue reading

Review: Dot & Ziggy (Chicago Children’s Theatre)

     
     

A little cuteness, a little charm, a lot of predictability

  
  

008.mm_.tock_.dotziggy

  
Chicago Children’s Theatre presents
   
   
Dot & Ziggy
   
Created by Linda Hartzell, Mark Perry
and the Seattle Children’s Theatre
Directed by Linda Hartzell
at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through June 26th  |  tickets: $16-$18  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Dot & Ziggy is Chicago Children’s Theatre’s first crack at targeting the baby and toddler audience—and, of course, those parents seeking a fun, interactive theatrical event to share with their youngest. Theater for the very young, age 6 months to 4 years, has been established in Europe and Australia for over two decades now and is just finding its audience in America, with Seattle and Minneapolis leading the way in baby and toddler theatre. Success for Dot & Ziggy could open the way to a whole new Chicago audience.

Created and directed by Linda Hartzell, Chicago Children’s Theatre also promotes Dot & Ziggy as childhood entertainment that doubles as “time well spent.” Clearly, the production was developed along early child development guidelines. The tried and true formulas first instigated by “Sesame Street” in the 1960s are all over this show. The production’s one variation from television lies in the moments it provides for interactive movement and sound. But the oft-repeated recognition of shapes, the recognition of opposites in language, as well as lessons on socialization – via the budding friendship between a ladybug, Dot (Roni Geva) and a skunk named Ziggy (Don Darryl Rivera) – are plainly safe, comfortable and predictable territory.

CCT-Dot-Ziggy-4_lo-resFar be it from me, not being a parent, to throw cold water on a theatrical experience that might be exactly what some parents want for their children—something that fits easily into parameters they’ve already been exposed to at home. Obviously, the young audience’s response to Dot and Ziggy’s friendship forms a far better indicator. Geva is charming in the dedicated earnestness with which she tries to make Ziggy see things her way. Rivera employs a hint of cheerful mischief in Ziggy’s opposition to Dot. It’s also a plus that Dot and Ziggy lead the audience with music from the lobby of the Victory Gardens Biograph Theater to the upstairs theatre space. Once inside, Nicolas Davio’s fresh and simple musical accompaniment forms a strong underpinning to the storytelling. By far, watching the kids react to the material may be the show’s biggest entertainment value—an element that reinforces the communal nature of live theater, both for adults and the very young.

I do question, however, an over-reliance on the Sesame-Street-model or an over-dependency on sociological approaches when it comes to creating theater, all with the intent that it be “good for children.” What can be lost is wonder; what results is a production that looks like it was created more by a well-meaning committee than by theater artists. Also, at some point, the question of whether parents really need to spend $16 a ticket to sing “The Itsy Bitsy Spider” with their children comes into view. Dot & Ziggy does have a very endearing original song near its end and one can only hope that further works for very young people, centered on greater originality and creativity, will be forthcoming.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  

baby watching Dot and Ziggy

 

Chicago Children’s Theatre’s Dot & Ziggy continues through June 26th, with performances Tuesdays-Thursdays at 10am, Fridays-Sundays at 10am and 12pm. Tickets are $16 on weekdays and $18 on weekends, and can be purchased by phone (773-871-3000) or online.

 

  
  

Review: The Outgoing Tide (Northlight Theatre)

     
     

Northlight creates a compassionate, witty world premiere

     
     

John Mahoney (Gunner), Thomas J. Cox (Jack) and Rondi Reed (Peg)

  
Northlight Theatre presents
   
   
The Outgoing Tide
   
Written by Bruce Graham
Directed by BJ Jones
at North Shore Center the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $30-$50  |  more info 

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The shock of a loved one turning into a bewildered stranger—that’s the curse of Alzheimer’s Disease. Like the wrath of God, in this new work it’s visited on a small family living on the shore of the Chesapeake. But it could easily be any in the audience. That’s one reason The Outgoing Tide, an effective world premiere from Northlight Theatre, is as much a rehearsal for the future as theater can offer. The other is the utter honesty of BJ Jones casting and staging.

John Mahoney (Gunner) and Rondi Reed (Peg).Author Bruce Graham compassionately and wittily considers his play’s ongoing crisis—a father’s senility as a permanent impairment—from all sides. It’s wrenching to hear as confident an actor as John Mahoney, Chicago icon, suddenly descend into the depths of a terminal brain malfunction. His Gunner Concannon is a shanty-Irish success, a blue-collar trucker used to getting his way. But time is taking a daily toll: his tested but true wife Peg (down-to-earth Rondi Reed) faces “a new battle every day.” Gunner repeats himself, can’t remember basic information, recalls the past perfectly but forgets yesterday or who he’s with, and wanders away, helpless to return.

But, unlike Alzheimer patients in the later stages, Gunner can feel and taste his diminishing returns, enough to propose a terrifying idea to Peg and his son Jack (himself facing two other family crises, divorce and alienation from his teenage son). Like Willie Loman before him, Gunner will arrange an accident. The $2.4 million payout from this self-administered euthanasia will free himself from dependency and diapers in a hateful hospice, give Peg the comfortable future that that expense would have negated, and enable Gunner to open the restaurant he’s always dreamed of. But it has to be tomorrow because the future’s not on Gunner’s side: With winter approaching, a boat heading out will soon stand out.

Much of the play deals with the denial and panic triggered by Gunner’s decision to take his boat out and plunge himself into the “outgoing tide.” Peg despairs that, with Gunner gone, she’ll have no one to care for, though Jack (Thomas J. Cox, looking as bewildered as you’d expect) will need her even more now. Jack hates the thought that his dream depends on his dad’s death.

     
Rondi Reed (Peg) and John Mahoney (Gunner). Thomas J. Cox (Jack) and John Mahoney (Gunner).
Thomas J. Cox (Jack) and Rondi Reed Peg). John Mahoney (Gunner). Rondi Reed (Peg) and in the background Thomas J. Cox (Jack) in Northlight Theatre's "The Outgoing Tide" by Bruce Graham, directed by BJ Jones. Rondi Reed Peg) and Thomas J. Cox (Jack)

Clearly, this is no “On Golden Pond,” full of sentimental banter (“you old poop”) and analogies to lost loons. (It’s a lot more like Marsha Norman’s “’night, Mother,” where a suicide looms over, and finally finishes, the action.) There’s enough humor (what if a demented man, bent on murder-suicide, forgets to commit the second crime?) to leaven the loaf. The particulars of this beleaguered family are balanced against the universal plight that we’re all clocks fated to run down until we tick no longer. Flashbacks fill us in on a marriage that clearly grew from love into, well, whatever is left now.

Spry and game, Mahoney brings an energetic actor’s instincts to a part that doesn’t always need them. His sheer spryness somewhat blunts the seriousness of Gunner’s losing game, but it also makes his sudden losses of reality all the more wrenching. Reed exudes a feisty practicality that, alas, is useless in this family calamity. Cox depicts how cherished memories turn toxic when their source is no longer the person you grew up with.

Yes, The Outgoing Tide is definitely a promissory note for crises to come. See it now before the tide comes back.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Thomas J. Cox (Jack), John Mahoney (Gunner) and Rondi Reed (Peg).

Performances: through June 19th, with performances Tuesdays at 7:30pm, Wednesdays at 1pm and 7:30pm, Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 2:30pm and 8:00pm, and Sundays 2:30 and 7:00pm. (some variations may occur – check website for exact performance info)  Tickets: Tickets are $40-$50, and can be purchased by phone (847-673-6300) or online at www.northlight.org. Location: All performances take place at the North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, 9501 Skokie Blvd., Skokie (map).

     
     

Continue reading

Review: Big Love (Chicago Fusion Theatre)

  
  

Ambition exceeds preparation in wedding dark-comedy

  
  

Jamie Bragg and Marcus Davis in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

     
Chicago Fusion Theatre presents
   
   
Big Love
  
Written by Charles Mee
Directed by Nilsa Reyna
at Royal George Theatre, 1641 N. Halsted (map)
through June 25  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Tackling a work by contemporary mosaic playwright Charles Mee requires aiming high. By design, Mee’s scripts are better described as blueprints than directives. His stage directions pose particularly unique challenges for production directors; some are broad and flexible, while others are comically specific, often with a blatant disregard for economy:

“…and, of all the brides and grooms, some are/ burning themselves with cigarettes/lighting their hands on fire and standing with their hands burning/ throwing plates and smashing them/ throwing kitchen knives/ taking huge bites of food/ and having to spit it out at once, vomiting…”

Stack commands like that on top of hefty themes and purposefully jarring in-play styles, and one can imagine why so many young artists are drawn to Mee’s work. The challenge his shows present offer unique opportunities for exciting, meaningful, fiercely entertaining theater.

Carla Alegre Harrison in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles MeeIf the actors have their lines memorized, that is. Director Nilsa Reyna’s production demonstrates a worthy vision, but his hindered in practice by jumbled dialogue, meandering actor-intentions, and hit-or-miss execution.

Adapted from The Suppliants by Aeschylus, Big Love follows 50 Greek women’s journey for refuge from a family arrangement forcing incestuous marriage upon them to their cousins. Having escaped by ship, three would-be brides (Carla Alegre, Jamie Bragg and Kate LoConti) seek shelter in an Italian mansion, owned by wealthy Piero (Todd Michael Kiech, inexplicably cast as a man of persuasion–Kiech exhibits the charisma of a robot wearing an ascot). Soon after, intended husbands Patrick King, Marcus Davis and John Taflan (ideal as the entitled, handsome, bratty, machismo-saturated Constantine) discover their fiancés’ hiding-spot and follow pursuit. Mee’s play jumps back and forth between Aeschylus’ narrative and broader musings on love, duty, and gender.

Royal George Theatre’s teeny upstairs studio serves as the playing space for Mee’s large-scale show. Nick Sieben’s smart, functional thrust set makes ideal use of the black box’s shortcomings. Concrete slabs, a soaking tub, pink ribbon, and a flower-installation create an ambiance that performs double-duty satisfying the play’s realistic and ethereal sensibilities. It’s one indication of a clear vision behind the show–another is David Mitchell as the curly Q’d, flaming nephew. Mitchell’s heightened acting meshes with text’s abstract style in a way that even when, out of the blue, he dips into a bath and sings a show tune, the moment is touching instead of hackneyed or contrived. Kate LoConti too makes hard-to-digest character traits easy to swallow.

     
(from top) John Taflan as Constantine, Marcus Davis as Oed, Pat King as Nikos in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee (from left) Carla Alegre-Harrison as Lydia, Jamie Bragg as Thyona, and Kate LoConti as Olympia

The rest of the show fares less well. Too many scenes are burdened by actors not seeming to be invested in the same moments, and emotional highpoints reading as stilted and clunky. Here, Fusion can’t quite merge Mee’s tangential ideas with a convincing story.

There‘s a reason so many plays end with a wedding; for better or for worse, they’re inherently dramatic. When even one that ends in a murder-orgy is tedious, the chemistry is off.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

 David Wesley Mitchell, Lisa Siciliano, Todd Kiech in Chicago Fusion Theatre's "Big Love" by Charles Mee

 

Continue reading

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

  
  

Continue reading