REVIEW: The Observatory (Viable Theatre Company)

     
    

Treading lightly on show’s darkest themes

     
    

 

The Observatory by Vincent Truman

 
Viable Theatre Company presents
   
The Observatory
  
Written/Directed by Vincent Truman
at
The Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton  (map)
through Dec 18   |  tickets: $12-$15   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

As necessary a play as The Observatory is, far better to consider it a work in progress than an actual finished product. Viable Theatre Company has mounted it at the Charnel House where its very stark and simple surroundings reflect the writing exactly—a great idea in need of further in-depth development.

Playwright/Director Vincent Truman and assistant directly Angela Jo Strohm bring us the tale of David (Colin Fewell) and Sally (Kasey O’Brien), a young married couple renting out their attic for sorely needed extra cash. The thing is, they rent it out to the government in order to create an “observatory,” a place from which David is contracted to keep eye on a stranger held in detention as part of the War on Terror. Imprisoned in solitary The Observatory by Vincent Truman 2confinement at an unknown location, a 3-D hologram image of the detainee is to be beamed into their attic for David to watch and await a confession. CIA program director Victor (Vincent Truman) reassures David there will be no torture–but David is under contract to not disclose anything he has observed with anyone, including his wife. Also, Sally must never enter the attic when the hologram is being beamed in. Sally and David accept these conditions in anticipation of hundreds of thousands of dollars in return.

Sally already voices qualms about the ethics of David quitting his teaching job and becoming an observer but her consternation really begins once curiosity gets the better of her and she enters the new observatory when the hologram is on. There, she finds David watching a young and attractive female prisoner, Marissa (Kate Lane). From then on, their marriage deteriorates due to Sally’s jealousy and David’s inability to keep his stultifying job as an observer from overtaking his entire life. David’s sexual interest in Marissa grows and their relationship intensifies once he discovers that, from some technological snafu, they can actually communicate with each other.

Given that America has been sucked into a moral morass over torture and indefinite detention, a hellhole from which the Obama administration will not extricate us or even ameliorate, a play like The Observatory couldn’t be timelier. However, Truman’s writing focuses more on the sexual interest between David and Marissa rather than taking bigger risks and digging deeper into his dangerous material. Private Bradley Manning, currently held at Quantico, VA for delivering thousands of government documents to Wikileaks, now shows signs of mental deterioration due to the same solitary confinement conditions that Marissa endures during the play. Lane’s intensity in her portrayal of Marissa is laudable but lacks nuance, given the psychological stress solitary confinement works on the human mind.

Likewise, the play leaves the rest of its characters functioning at a 2-dimensional level and its resolution also strikes exceedingly simplistic moral chords. It’s almost as if the playwright had a failure of nerve, willing to open up torture’s sadistic can of worms but too scared to plunge in. The result is a light skate on top of The Observatory’s frozen surface, where we can still imagine ourselves distant and untouched by the ugliness beneath.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

  
 

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REVIEW: Musical of the Living Dead (Cowardly Scarecrow)

 

A Zombie-licious Ghoul’s Delight

 

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Cowardly Scarecrow Productions present
   
Musical of the Living Dead
   
Book/Lyrics by Marc Lewallen and Brad Younts
Music/Arrangements by Mary Spray and
Matt Mehawich
Directed by Marc Lewallen and Brad Younts
at
The Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

The Charnel House is certainly an apropos venue for Musical of the Living Dead: its former life was as an old-style funeral home. Gothic wood paneling and light fixtures set the right tone for Cowardly Scarecrow Productions’ ribald horror spoof depicting the dead, annoyingly, not staying dead. Marc Lewallen and Brad Younts, co-creators of book and lyrics, are the madmen behind the mayhem, aided by partners in crime Musical of Living Dead - Scarecrow 020 Mary Spray on music and Matt Mehawich on arrangements. What can be said about cast and crew? They come from Columbia College—or at least most of them. One suspects their cohesiveness depends, in part, on shared training and collegiate associations—if one may use that professional term.

Musical of the Living Dead lies just inches from being a musical comedy that could be juxtaposed with, quote, legitimate theater, unquote. There’s just a tinge of that vibe one finds with the sort of comedy reviews one ventures to Annoyance Theatre for—slap dash irreverence that often looks slapped together. But Spray and Mehawich’s musical arrangements reveal startling sophistication. Plus, acting, singing and dancing quality definitely soars above standard Annoyance fare. Something aspirational peeks out from Cowardly Scarecrow’s lampoon of stereotypical horror plot involving randomly thrown together people escaping zombie hoards. It’s as if they were genuinely striving to create a new Rocky Horror or Little Shop of Horrors.

Good for them that they’ve got some decent crazy ladies for whom to sell their spoof. Barbra Flowers (Jill Valentine), the show’s virgin good girl (sort of), loses her brother Johnny (Tim Soszko) to a zombie attack while trying to lay a wreath at Grampa’s (sic) grave. It’s one thing to watch Barbra unhinge at the prospect of fighting zombies from an abandoned house alongside the musical’s lone black man, Ben Blackman (Quinton Guyton). It’s another to see her get uncomfortably personal with the other fugitives–including the stuffed deer’s head on the wall–while relaying her zombie escape story. Once that happens, you know the girl is gone!

Gone is the only way to describe Helen Cooper (Mandy Whitenack), a dame who views life, and her blighted marriage, through an alcoholic haze. Warring, conservative husband Harry (Billy Sullivan) simply can’t keep up with her. Whitenack pulls out every bit of Betty Davis, Tallulah Bankhead and God-knows-what overripe-screen-star to execute Helen’s boozy domination.

 

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That leaves the rest of the cast to fill out all the other horror flick stereotypes–slutty hick sisters Judy (Liz McArthur) and Trudy McCoy (Mary Spray); Ted (Jonathan Hymen) as the closet gay dude; Fran Davis (Ashley Bush) as the Fox News journalist with over-whipped hair; and helicopter pilot Steve Sherbotsky (Ryan V. Brinkerhoff) as her lover. McArthur cleverly doubles as Karen, Helen and Harry’s little girl, who stays sick in the basement past the point of zombie return. Jacob Clausen opens the musical as George, poetically profound fright fest announcer.

That leaves our hero, Ben, to carry the day and save Barbra from imminent un-death. Most comic interactions between cast members keep the flow going and the musical energy high. However, what holds Musical of the Living Dead back is its over-reliance on typical plot developments, typical horror genre characters and typical schlock comedy splatter. Musical of the Living Dead succeeds most when it takes the audience to uncanny, unexpected places. Ben, being the lone voice of reason among a gang of crazy white people, isn’t allowed to get his Rambo on until the end. That’s really too bad. After all, between the living and the undead, there’s really only so much a brother can take.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: In Love’s Bright Coils (Genesis Theatre)

Does the way we communicate affect the way we love?

 

 For Web (2 of 4)

  
Genesis Ensemble presents
 
In Love’s Bright Coils
   
Written by The Genesis Ensemble
Directed by Kat Paddock
at The Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton (map)
through August 30th  |  tickets: $10  |  more info

reviewed by Allegra Gallian 

Relationships are complicated. Depending on what side a person is on, it can be the greatest adventure or the cruelest fate. Either way, people crave love and affection, often communicating their feelings through the written word. Genesis Ensemble have taken this notion and used it to form their new, original piece In Love’s Bright Coils (the title based on a poem by E.B. White). Directed by Kat Paddock, this experimental piece based on found work seeks to answer the question, “Does the way we communicate affect the way we love?”

For Web (1 of 4) There’s a sense of theatricality even before entering the performance space. The Charnel House is loaded with character and charm. Before the show begins, the audience is led down a hallway lined with letters, text messages, Facebook messages and other types of correspondence. Entering the theatre, the actor’s are already on, filling the space with simultaneous readings of these messages as the audience takes their seats. It’s a sensory overload in a good sense, keeping the eyes moving about the room as this word cluster encapsulates the audience.

In Love’s Bright Coils then officially begins – opening on John and Abigail Adams reading letters they’ve sent each other; then flashing to present time with an angry man (Chris Acevedo) being broken up with through email. His emotions are clearly right at the surface and it’s evident that he understands the character is near breaking point.

The show switches back and forth between earlier times (late 1800’s, 1920’s and 1960’s) with handwritten letters and post mail correspondence to currents times (Facebook, blogs and text messages). The scenes feel a bit disjointed as they jump between time periods, causing one to be momentarily pulled out of the action. Additionally, within the older time period pieces, some of the actors have trouble connecting with the words of the letters, thus losing characterization in the process. More of a back story feels necessary with these vignettes because the letters and actions don’t offer a clear enough explanation. It might make more sense to set the action chronologically – not only would this inform us on how people relate over time, but we’d also experience how communications evolved and what this does to relationships.

The stage throughout the show is bare with a multimedia backdrop, displaying dates, logos and images. The multimedia adds another layer, increasing the interest in what’s occurring on stage. It also acts as a transitional piece, helping to somewhat smooth out the switches between time periods.

A present day scene based on LiveJounal posts is a riot. In a short amount of time, McKenzie Gerber’s character has a clear arch with a fleshed out back-story, which proves to be quite funny. Gerber also moves throughout the space, taking his scene off the stage, which helps the sketch grow as he delves further into the reality of the character.

Karie Miller offers an interesting portrayal of a woman’s careening Facebook addiction, becoming increasingly scattered and spread too thin until her “relationship status” goes from “in a relationship” to “single and unfriended.” Miller fully embodies this social networking addiction and is present in the scene, keeping the audience engaged.

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Another stand-out vignette comes from present day as well. Two women (Amanda Jane Dunne and Natalie Burtney) have just gone on their first date. Once home, Burtney’s character sends a post-date text. Having yet to receive a response the next day, she spirals into a state of temporary insanity, agonizing over the one meeting, until finally she receives a reply. The scene is wonderfully relatable to the audience, and what comes to mind is, “It’s funny because it’s true” – if we haven’t experienced this personally, then we probably know someone who has. Paddock and Dunne completely embody the characters and portray real, raw emotions that radiate into the audience.

Throughout In Love’s Bright Coils, a man, dressed in black, appears as a messenger and the vocalization of different character’s inner thoughts. Played by Jake Carr, this character is often confusing. In some scenes his purpose is clear as he announces blog posts, email subjects, text messages and instant messages. At other times, however, his character adds nothing save for distraction, once again pulling us away from the main action.

Overall, it’s nice to see Genesis taking these risks. This is a hugely unique show, which is a good thing. The trouble with risks, however, is that sometimes things don’t work out. But by not playing it safe, the ensemble is free to explore new territory, making some very impressionable discoveries.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

 

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In Love’s Bright Coils plays at the Charnel House, 3421 W. Fullerton. The show plays on Friday/Saturday at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm through August 30. Tickets are $10, and can be reserved by sending an e-mail to genesis.ensemble@gmail.com.

   
   

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