Review: Pony (About Face Theatre)

  
  

Brilliant, fully-committed cast can’t bridle Bruchner’s ‘Pony’

  
  

Kristina Valada-Viars (Marie) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

  
About Face Theatre presents
  
Pony
  
Written by Sylvan Oswald
Directed by Bonnie Metzgar
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $21-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Woyzeck was left unfinished when its author Georg Buchner died of typhus at the tender age of twenty-three in 1836. Buchner’s bleak depiction of working class life touched a nerve in 19th Century Germany. Since then, plenty of artists have taken it upon themselves to finish, adapt, and tweak the original, including composer Alban Berg and filmmaker Werner Herzog. Lucky for us, the Chicago theatre community is putting on a Woyzeck smorgasbord this spring, with plenty of chances to see new spins on the story. Oracle Theatre  and the Hypocrites have put on somewhat straightforward versions of the play, but About Face decided to move further away from the Buchner with Pony by Sylvan Oswald.

Kristina Valada-Viars (Marie) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.Superbly acted and wonderfully designed, I wished that Oswald had stuck closer to the primary source or had ventured further away. What director Bonnie Metzgar ends up with is a derivative tale that is usually engrossing and often funny, but doesn’t really make much sense.

While Buchner was writing about the proletariat, Oswald is writing about gender identification. Every character in the play is either transgendered or interested in one, including Oswald’s stand-in for Woyzeck, Pony (Kelli Simpkins). Added to his woes about money and love, Pony must also deal with being outted in a potentially hostile community.

Pony takes place in the town across the forest from Woyzeck’s world. Instead of Industrial-age Germany, though, Pony’s world looks like a grimy Pennsylvania coal mining town of the 1980s. Everyone is covered in grit and everyone is poor.

Pony rides into town and instantly falls for Marie (Kristina Valada-Viars), a waitress obsessed with the murder that happened on the other side of the woods to a certain other Marie. Marie’s best friend Stel (Jessica Hudson) warns Pony that he better stay out of Marie’s life, which the audience learns is because she also secretly pines for Marie. Looking out for Pony’s well-being is Cav (Janet Ulrich Brooks), an old-school lesbian and the only scientist in town. And while Pony is courting Marie, Heath (Matthew Sherbach) is searching for Pony, laden with family secrets.

Pony is clearly inspired by Woyzeck, but the play goes off on Oswald’s own tangents. Instead of force-feeding peas, Cav subjects Pony to psychological evaluations. Marie ponders how a man can reach the desperation needed to kill the one thing in the world he loves—pretty much the question Buchner sets out to answer in his play. And Pony, like the other titular character, finds himself battered by society. Unfortunately, Oswald is unable to tie these themes together and the play feels more like a musing on the original than its own entity. Pony has difficulty finding a job and is devastated when he finds himself robbed, but he never reaches the utter anguish of Woyzeck. The romance between Pony and Marie is budding, not self-destructing. Oswald doesn’t reach the lower-class rage of Buchner and Pony doesn’t have its inspiration’s weight. By the end, the plot unravels into confusion. The final scene is especially tepid.

The brilliant, fully-committed cast, however, does what they can to keep the story alive. Brooks grabs the audience attention and pulls us along wherever she goes. Simpkins carries the show well, bursting with anger or sheepishly talking to Marie, whatever the script requires. Sherbach, besides some overuse of his hands, adds a great, humorous balance to the mix.

Many of the modern adaptations of Woyzeck, like Collaboraction’s Guinea Pig Solo, focus on the militaristic aspects of the play. About Face takes a different route with taking a hard look at the personal side. But without Metzgar’s awesome cast, the play would fall apart.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Matthew Sherbach (Heath) and Kelli Simpkins (Pony) in About Face Theatre’s production of PONY by Sylvan Oswald, directed by Artistic Director Bonnie Metzgar.  Photo by Michael Brosilow.

All photos by Michael Brosilow 

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Review: Woyzeck (The Hypocrites)

     
     

True to form, Sean Graney creates another ‘beautiful murder’

     
     

Erin Barlow (Kathë), Ryan Bollettino (Herr Doktor) and Geoff Button (Woyzeck) in Woyzeck at The Hypocrites

   
The Hypocrites present
  
Woyzeck
  
Written by Georg Büchner
Directed by Sean Graney
Music by Kevin O’Donnell
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 22  |  tickets: $21-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

When Georg Büchner dropped dead in 1837, he left behind a work-in-progress that has since been a powerful draw for artists and academics…and an even bigger pain in the neck for editors. The original script for Woyzeck–that’s an assumed title, by the way; Büchner never had the chance to choose one himself–was a scribbled hodgepodge of fragments and scenes chronicling a layman’s transformation into a killer written on unnumbered pages.

Lindsey Gavel (Marie, foreground) and Sean Patrick Fawcett (Capt. Hauptmann, background) in The Hypocrites production of WOYZECK By Georg Büchner, adapted and directed by The Hypocrites Artistic Director Sean Graney.  Photo by Ryan Bourque.Performing the text as-is is not an option, at least not a compelling one. Producing this soldier story takes a heavy-hand, a willingness to make a directorial mark, and some serious cojones.

Enter Sean Graney.

The Hypocrites artistic director has developed a knack for bold theatre and ranks among the most exciting directors working in Chicago. Graney possesses the ability to unearth the hearts of classic texts and translate them to contemporary audiences by employing an arsenal of visceral elements. In this Woyzeck, he plays maestro–soundscapes, a dumb show, and music by Kevin O’Donnell help forward the plot and give body to heady expressionist ideas. His adaptation streamlines what Büchner left meandering. His rewrites, rearrangements, and omissions are always with clear purpose and are always for the better.

The title tragic hero, played by Geoff Button, is given the full Job treatment from his country, his colleagues and his wife. Subjected to inhumane medical experiments, degrading work conditions and an ungrateful spendthrift spouse, Woyzeck descends into desperation. His misery is amplified by the production’s wry, cruelly detached sense of humor–his child is literally presented as dead weight: a rock.

Visually, it’s captivating. Tom Burch’s set design juxtaposes nature with biohazard plastics in a vast and functional playing space. Dangerous elements get the richest, most appealing colors–appropriate for a show whose characters find beauty in destruction.

The Hyprocrites allow us to pity the tormented protagonist while alienating us just enough to objectively consider the morality of his and our resentment toward his adulteress wife (Lindsey Gavel). Added repetition in dialogue and gestures conveys the soldier’s ability to endure anguish for the people he loves, and suggests a breaking point may be the only solution for escaping the hellish loop of giving-without-return; suggests, but doesn’t dictate. The specific tragic end Graney chooses for his doomed young man leaves some questions open-ended. Unlike in Büchner’s text, they’re the right kind.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Sean Patrick Fawcett (Capt. Hauptmann) and Geoff Button (Woyzeck).

All photos by Ryan Bourque

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Top 10 Chicago shows we’re looking forward to this spring

Chicagoskylinefromnorth

 

Top 10 shows to see this spring!

 

A list of shows we’re looking forward to before summer

 

Written by Barry Eitel

March 20th marked the first day of spring, even if it feels like winter hasn’t loosened its grip at all. The theatre season is winding down, with most companies putting up the last shows of the 2010/2011. Over the summer, it would seem, Chicagoans choose outdoor activities over being stuffed in a hot theatre. But there is still plenty left to enjoy. The rising temperatures make leaving your home much more tempting, and Chicago theatre is ending the traditional season with a bang. Here, in no particular order, are Chicago Theatre Blog’s picks for Spring 2011.

 

   
Goat or Who Is Sylvia 001
The Goat or, Who Is Sylvia?

Remy Bumppo Theatre
March 30 – May 8
more info

Playwright Edward Albee has gotten a lot of love this year, with major productions at Victory Gardens and Steppenwolf (for the first time). The season has been a sort of greatest hits collection spanning his career, including modern classics like Zoo Story, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and Three Tall Women. Remy Bumppo ends their season with some late-period Albee, but The Goat never skimps on Albee’s honest dysfunction. In the 1994 drama, Albee takes a shockingly earnest look at bestiality, and questions everything we thought about love.


      

Porgy and Bess - Court Theatre - banner


Porgy and Bess
 

Court Theatre 
May 12 – June 19
more info

Musical-lovers have a true aural feast to enjoy this spring. Following their mission to produce classics, Court produces the most well-known American opera, Porgy and Bess. George Gershwin’s ode to folk music is grandiose, inspirational, and not without controversy. But the show, telling tales about African-American life in the rural South, features brilliant music (like “Summertime,” which has been recorded by such vastly different performers as Billie Holiday and Sublime). Charles Newell, Ron OJ Parsons, and an all-black cast will definitely have an interesting take on one of the most influential pieces of American literature.


           
Front Page - Timeline Theatre Chicago - logo
The Front Page
 

Timeline Theatre  
April 16 – June 12
more info

For their season closer, TimeLine Theatre selected a 80-year-old play with deep Chicago connections. Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur were well known journalists, reporting on the madness that was the Jazz Age. They turned their life into a farcical romp, The Front Page, which in turn served as the inspiration for the Cary Grant vehicle “His Girl Friday”. The play centers around several hardened newsmen as they await an execution; of course, things don’t go as planned. Along with loads of laughs, TimeLine provides an authentic Chicago voice sounding off about a legendary time.


     
Peter Pan - Chicago Tribune Freedom Center
Peter Pan

Broadway In Chicago and threesixty° entertainment
at Chicago Tribune Freedom Center (675 W. Chicago)
Begins April 29
more info

Imported from London, this high-flying envisioning of the J.M. Barrie play should cause many jaws to drop. We’ve seen high school productions where the boy who never wants to grow up flies around on wires (leading to some disastrous videos on Youtube). Threesixtyº’s show has flying, but it also has three hundred and sixty degrees of screen projections. Already a smash across the pond, this will probably be one of the top spectacles of the decade. WATCH VIDEO


     
Woyzeck - Hypocrites Theatre - banner
Pony - About Face Theatre - banner

Woyzeck
and Pony  

at Chopin Theatre
The Hypocrites and About Face Theatre 
in repertory April 15 – May 22
more info

I’m not exactly sure if Georg Buchner’s unfinished 1830s play can support a whole city-wide theatrical festival, but I’m excited to see the results. The Oracle Theatre already kickstarted the Buchner love-fest with a well-received production of Woyzeck directed by Max Truax. Now Sean Graney and his Hypocrites and a revived About Face get their chance, along with numerous other performers riffing on the play. Pony offers a semi-sequel to Woyzeck, tossing together Buchner’s characters with others in a brand new tale. The Hypocrites offer a more straightforward adaptation to the play. Well, straightforward for the Hypocrites. I’m sure their white-trash-avant-garde tendencies will make an appearance, and I’m sure I’ll love it. (ticket special: only $48 for both shows


     
American Theatre Company - The Original Grease
The Original Grease

American Theatre Company 
April 21 – June 5
 more info

American Theatre Company ends their season with a major theatrical event—a remount of the original 1971, foul-mouthed version of Grease. Before Broadway producers, Hollywood, and John Travolta cleaned up the ‘50s set musical, “Summer Nights” was “Foster Beach.” The story of this production is probably as interesting as the actual show, with lost manuscripts and brand new dialogue and song.


       
Voodoo Chalk Circle - State Theatre
The Voodoo Chalk Circle

State Theatre 
April 9 – May 8
more info

This month, Theatre Mir already took a highly-acclaimed stab at this intriguing piece of Brecht, which tears at Western views of justice. In true Brechtian style, the State’s production is shaking the narrative up, transferring the story from an Eastern European kingdom to a post-Katrina New Orleans, where law and order have broken with the levee. We’ll see if Chelsea Marcantel’s adaptation holds water, but she has plenty to pull from, including the region’s rich folk traditions and the general lawlessness seen after the storm.   WATCH VIDEO


         
hickorydickory - chicago dramatists - banner Hickorydickory

Chicago Dramatists 
May 13 – June 12
more info

To welcome spring, Chicago Dramatists will revisit one of their own, the 2009 Wendy Wasserstein Prize-winning Marisa Wegrzyn. Directed by artistic director Russ Tutterow, the darkly whimsical piece imagines a world where everyone has a literal internal clock that ticks away towards our demise. What happens when someone breaks their clock? Through a very odd window, Wegrzyn looks at tough, relevant questions.


     
Next to Normal - Broadway in Chicago - banner
Next to Normal

Broadway in Chicago 
at Bank of America Theatre 
April 26 – May 8
more info

The newly-minted Purlitzer Prize winner, Next to Normal rolls into town on its first national tour, three Tony Awards in hand.  Alice Ripley, who received the 2009 Tony Award for Best Actress in a Musical, will reprise her acclaimed performance at the Bank of America Theatre on Monroe. Contemporary in sound and subject matter, the work explores the effects of a mother’s bi-polar disease exacerbated by her child’s earlier death, Next to Normal will no doubt be anything close to normal for Chicago audiences.    (watch video)


     
White Noise - Royal George
White Noise

Royal George Theatre 
April 1 – June 5
more info

Like Next to Normal, the new White Noise promises to take the usually vapid rock musical genre and stuff it with some tough issues. A show focusing on an attractive female pop duo with ties to white supremacy? It ain’t Rock of Ages, that’s for sure. Produced by Whoopi Goldberg, Chicago was chosen as the show’s incubator before a Broadway debut. Perhaps the premise may overwhelm the story; either way, White Noise is going to inspire conversations.     [ Listen to the Music ]

  
  

Review: Star Witness (House Theatre)

  
  

When bad scripts happen to talented people

  
  

Mary Redmon, Briana DeGiulio

      
The House Theatre presents
  
Star Witness
  
Written by Joe Meno
Directed by
Sean Graney
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 7  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Stories about young women that escape their mundane existences by embarking on fantastic journeys are fairly common in pop culture. Alice fell down the rabbit hole, Dorothy flew over the rainbow, and just this past weekend, the ladies of Sucker Punch retreated into videogame cut-scenes as an alternative to their imprisonment in an asylum. In Star Witness, the disappearance of a little girl sends Shelley (Briana De Giulio) on a surreal journey that teaches her to appreciate the world around her, no matter how dull it may be. Sean Graney directs a talented cast of actors, but Joe Meno’s script is a rushed, unfinished mystery that fails to captivate, with the characters never given a real chance to develop as the story races to its finish.

Briana DeGiulio, Chris MathewsThe play begins with kindergarten teacher Hazel (Mary Redmon) telling the audience a story about a wily fox and a huntsman as she prepares for a traditional evening of Chinese food, board games, and listening to a police scanner with Shelley. Hazel returns to the story throughout the show, but its connection to the mystery is strained, and slows down the momentum of the present action. After discovering the death of her bird Mr. Peepers and hearing a report of an 1126 – abandoned bicycle – on the police scanner, Hazel is in a volatile mood when Shelley comes home from work. Entering in a her powder blue waitress uniform (one of the many visual and thematic cues taken from “The Wizard of Oz”), Shelley talks about the troublesome day at work for her boyfriend Wayne (Chris Matthews) and herself, before discovering Mr. Peepers and being thrown into the same emotional chaos as her foster grandmother.

As more news comes in over the scanner, Hazel becomes infuriated with God, shouting and throwing down her Bible in rage at the prospect of young Jamie Mae being hurt, while Shelley begins to see an opportunity for the adventure she’d always wanted to have. As various members of the town enter their home, the audience is thrown a lot of exposition, and the hectic pace of the first act doesn’t give the characters much room to breathe. De Giulio and Redmon are given big dramatic moments that allow them to show off their acting chops, but the transitions within the scenes need to be much stronger. It seems as though Meno isn’t quite sure what kind of story he wants to tell. There’s not enough actual detective work to make it feel like a fully realized mystery, and the relationship aspects of the script aren’t developed well enough for it to stand alone as a story about a girl reconnecting with her absent mother by learning to value her small town existence.

Shelley’s monologue about her childhood wish to find a dead body disturbs because of De Giulio’s hauntingly raw delivery, but the moment feels sudden, and slightly inappropriate in the context of the scene. When Wayne comes over and tells Shelley that he plans on taking a job in Indiana, their relationship lacks appropriate definition for the moment to have a strong emotional resonance. It all generally moves much too fast, and when a pair of gym shoes Ghostare found with blood on them (red shoes are a motif throughout), Shelley hops on her bike and begins her journey to find Jamie Mae, signaling the end of act one before it really gets a chance to take off.

The first act of Star Witness takes place in the Chopin Theatre’s downstairs lobby, transforming the space into Hazel’s living room in an unorthodox move by Graney and set designer Lee Keenan. Once Shelley hops on her bike, the door to the main theater opens, revealing an ominous forest that serves as the setting for act two. It’s an ingenious way of involving the audience in a way that the script fails to do, literally forcing them to move into the world of the play. In the second act, Shelley encounters three men, with each one representing different relationships in Shelley’s life. The one-handed toy factory worker Bob Wyatt (Gary Simmers) is a connection to her mother, the flirty, sea monster costume clad Junior (Matthews) symbolizes her romantic relationships, and the creepy baby-mask wearing Norris helps Shelley appreciate her hometown.

The second act suffers from the same problems as the first, but there are some glimpses of what Star Witness could be with some reworking and polish, particularly the scene between Shelley and Junior. De Giulio and Matthews have great chemistry and their flirting is adorable, with Meno slowing down the pace and giving them an opportunity to explore their relationship. As cute as the scene is, though, it’s still a diversion from the main mystery, and Meno’s hectic pacing returns once Junior exits as the play sprints to its conclusion. The story is resolved with almost no investigation on Shelley’s part, which makes the preceding events feel rather pointless, and the rushed conclusion ends up having the same gravitas as a still shot of characters high-fiving at the end of a TV sitcom.

There is potential in Meno’s script, but Star Witness ultimately feels like a rough draft. The idea of a small-town murder mystery influenced byThe Wizard of Oz” is a fascinating one, and while the play does a passable job with the theme of Shelley wanting something fantastic in her life, the rest of the Oz references need to be more fully realized if they’re to be anything more than cosmetic. Thankfully, Graney knows how to get strong performances out of his actors, and his ensemble ultimately saves the show from disaster. In less capable hands, Star Witness would be dead on arrival.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
      
  

Mary Redmon, Gary Simmers, Briana DeGiulio

Star Witness continues at the Chopin Theatre (1543 W. Division) through May 7th, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $25, and can be purchased online or by calling 773-769-3832. More information is available at www.thehousetheatre.com

All photos by Michael Brosilow

           
           

Review: The Wedding (TUTA Theatre)

     
     

TUTA’s garishly manic wedding holds more potential

     
     

A scene from 'The Wedding' by Bertolt Brecht, re-mounted by TUTA Theatre of Chicago

  
TUTA Theatre presents
  
The Wedding
  
Written by Bertolt Brecht 
Directed by
Zeljko Djukic 
at
Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through March 6  |  tickets: $25-$30   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

The wedding party is back! Under the direction of Zeljko Djukic, TUTA Theatre remounts its wildly successful production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Wedding, an early comedy about a wedding dinner filled with obnoxious and unpredictable guests. Having triumphed with last year’s production (see our review), TUTA is having another go.

TUTA Wedding #3Andy Hager is back at his panty-sniffing best as the Bridegroom’s Friend. As the Bride’s Father, Kirk Anderson holds court once again with the unbearably tangential and grotesque stories. As Bride and Bridegroom, Jennifer Byers and Trey Maclin regale once more as the newlywed couple that strives too hard to impress people they don’t like. Meanwhile, Jacqueline Stone (The Wife) and Jaimelyn Gray (The Bride’s Sister) again take lusty feminine mischief to fabulous extremes.

Ariel Brenner, Sean Ewert and Jake Lindquist join the cast to take on the roles vacated by Laurie Larson, Christopher Popio and Ben Harris. TUTA’s rehearsal process for its remount was terribly short and it shows. Hardly enough time has been allowed to let the new cast members jell with the old. Gone is the near seamlessness by which TUTA conveyed these Weimar Era characters’ jaded frustrations, cynicism and anxiety over class. Another weekend of performances will probably warm up the whole cast to the old Wedding magic, but it shouldn’t be left for too long. Part of the genius of the earlier production was the way madness fluidly sprouted in one corner while a guest struggled to win the center of attention in another.

That said, there’s potential for fresh manic humor from the incorporation of new blood. Brenner plays the Bridegroom’s Andy Hager as Bridegroom's Friend in the remount of TUTA Theatre's 'The Wedding' by Bertolt Brecht.Mother with a little more mischief and flirtatiousness than Larson did—Larson had a mother’s scowl that could sour milk and make mares give birth to deformed foals. Ewert’s Husband sympathetically depicts a man who may actually love his Wife, whatever his demons may be—or hers. Finally, Lindquist sings with a little more vaudeville bravado than did Harris in the role of The Young Man. There is much new here for the cast to work and play with, hopefully with exciting results.

Audiences will still find much to enjoy at The Wedding. The bones of Djukic’s direction are still strong. Jesse Terrill’s original compositions hold up very well, and the incorporation of pop tunes sets the right distancing tone for commentary upon the selfish, self-absorbed action of the guests. And then there’s the Jello—from a jiggling entrée of cod to jiggling desserts, nothing portends wedding disaster like garishly colored food that just won’t stay still.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Scene from TUTA's production of 'The Wedding' by Bertolt Brecht

   
  

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REVIEW: Odradrek (House Theatre)

  
  

House Theatre finds its groove

  
  

Odradrek by Brett Neveu - House Theatre of Chicago - music Josh Schmidt - director Dexter Bullard

  
House Theatre of Chicago presents
  
Odradrek
 
Written by Brett Neveu
Music by
Josh Schmidt
Directed by
Dexter Bullard
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through March 5  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The House Theatre of Chicago isn’t known for their gloominess. They often dip into darker subjects, especially death (Dave DaVinci Saves the Universe, The Nutcracker our review ★★★½), sometimes drugs (All the Fame of Lofty Deedsreview ★★★), and, once, children killing each other with metaphorical handguns (Girls Vs. Boysreview). Their newest offering, Odradek, a riff on Kafka via Brett Neveu, is easily the bleakest story I’ve seen by the puckish group. The promotional material compares the play to Hitchcock, and in a semi-disclaimer, artistic director Nathan Allen warns that the “show is scary.” I firmly believe that the hardest emotion to evoke in an audience is not glee, or sadness, or despair, but fear. To be honest, Odradek never really scared me. And it’s not very Hitchcockian; it feels more like “Saw” meets Beverly Cleary.

Odradrek by Brett Neveu - music Josh Schmidt - director Dexter BullardThe play is beautifully realized by designers Collette Pollard and Lee Keenan. The play works best when seen as performance art, not a intellectual venture. Neveu and Dexter Bullard, two newcomers to the House, want this play to be both a tragically complex story and a macabre poem. They can’t nail down either. Neveu’s language is delightfully lyrical, but it doesn’t make for a coherent piece of drama. Realities, fantasy, and hallucination are blurred and the three characters’ motivations are convoluted. However, the show still takes the audience on a ride in true House style.

The play centers around a Boy (Joey Steakley), who comes from a broken, but not abusive, home. He lives with his Father (David Parkes), who enters into an ethically-questionable romance with the Boy’s Doctor (Carolyn Defrin). The Boy, on the other hand, enters into a relationship with a monster that lives under the stairs, Odradek. Slowly, the Boy slips down a path of confusion and self-mutilation.

The plot has a few holes, which I’ll wager are intentional. The Doctor is pretty clearly a primary care physician, and the Boy very clearly requires some facetime with a psychologist. The Boy’s wounds provided another puzzle, because it wasn’t clear if they were imagined or actual. As the play progresses, the grip on reality loosens and every aspect of the story comes into question.

The Boy’s affliction is linked to his parent’s divorce, but not much is explained. Neveu relies heavily on images, metaphors, and anecdotes for mood, but none of these provide stakes for the Boy. Colors are especially important—the Doctor asks the Boy what color his mother’s eyes are, while Odradek quizzes him about the hues of blood and sinew. But these tangents don’t explain why he misses his mom or why he chooses to hurt himself.

Even with the stylistic clashes, the cast handles the play well. Parkes’ performance is fascinating to watch in his House debut. He gives the Father a gritty, Chicago-style treatment that isn’t found in many House shows. Defrin, always a pleasure, plays against him decently, even though she’s more presentational. Steakley comes off zombiefied in a challenging role, and his age is very hard to pinpoint (I sort of figured he was around 25 but still living at home). He hits astride as his story unravels.

Infusing the company with new blood this season is a truly refreshing idea. In recent years, the House seemed to be stumbling at times. Odradek is a worthy venture and dives into territory that the company had successfully plunged into in the past. But it lacks heft. The play doesn’t reveal much about mental illness, divorce, or a connection between the two. Its value lies in how it strikes the ear, the eye, and the soul – not the mind.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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REVIEW: The Nutcracker (House Theatre)

     
     

Rediscover the whimsical genius of House Theatre

     
     

The Nutcracker - House Theatre Chicago

   
House Theatre presents
   
The Nutcracker
   
Adapted by Jake Minton and Phillip C. Klapperich
Music by
Kevin O’Donnell 
Directed by
Tommy Rapley
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through Dec 26  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

If there is a theatre company in town that has a corner on childlike whimsy for adults, it would be the House, hands down. Every production they put up is sure to have flashy, comic book-style visuals, a frenetic, cartoony energy from the actors, and plenty of gags. And lately (although I wasn’t able to see the season opener, Thieves Like Usour review ★★½), their work has been falling flat on it’s face. For example, last season’s Girls vs. Boys (our review ★½), a musical that was supposed to reveal the dark underbelly of the American teen, was a generic, loud, overdramatic hormone pile.

NutcrakerPoster copyThey may have recaptured their groove that made Chicago love ‘em, though. With The Nutcracker (an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic story penned by Housers Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich, first produced in 2007 at the Steppenwolf Garage), there’s a delicious blend of fun and heart. They also throw in fistfuls of that whimsical House magic that has you leaving the Chopin full of childish wonder. The show is easily the best thing I’ve seen there.

The story is a distant cry from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, by far the best known adaptation of Hoffman’s short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Minton and Klapperich tinker with the classic story to make it a much more personal tale, eschewing the sugarplum fairies for familial conflict. The play focuses on the relationship between Clara (Carla Kessler) and her brother Fritz (Chance Bone), who dies on the battlefield one Christmas Eve and then comes back, reincarnated as a nutcracker by Uncle Drosselmeyer (Blake Montgomery). Of course, the fantasy is still front and center. The whole play follows Clara and the nutcracker’s battle against the rats for Christmas. They are aided by other playthings hobbled together in Drosselmeyer’s workshop, including Hugo (Joey Steakley), a robot; Phoebe (Trista Smith), a pull-string doll; and Monkey (Michael E. Smith), a francophone sock monkey. Together, they attempt to make cookies, fend off rats, chop down a tree, and bring Christmas back to the house left joyless by Fritz’s death. Clara’s mother and father (Carolyn Defrin and Minton, respectively) are not amused by Clara and Drosselmeyer’s antics, believing the two are opening a barely-scabbed wound. Tension pervades the entire piece. We’re wondering if Clara and her family will move past Fritz’s untimely demise, or if Clara will delude herself into thinking the nutcracker is an appropriate substitute. It’s a remarkably smart, unpredictable, and complex conflict for a group known for spectacle. And it’s much more refreshing than another traipse around Candyland.

The cast has a seemingly endless supply of energy. The always great Defrin, for example, leaves as the depressed and angered Martha just to quick change and pop back in as a nefarious rat. The petite Kessler bursts with the energy of a twelve-year old. The best part is the motley crew of toys, especially Smith, who, donning the monkey costume, is the funniest one in the show.

Kevin O’Donnell’s compositions do a great job of implying a Christmas feel without repeating overplayed Christmas carols (the British accented rats even due a Clash tribute). However, the complete Americanization and contemporizing of the story was unnecessary for me. Although it leads to some great jokes (e.g., pizza bagels), the story begs to be more timeless. There were also a couple of plot gaps that the audience sort of swallows along with the show.

The Nutcracker had some absolutely brilliant moments—one being the magical transition from inside to outdoors and the other being the terrifying Rat King (something that gave me a nightmare or two). With this show, the House finds the perfect content to match their style. Let’s hope they keep it up.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m., with matinee performances at 3pm on Friday November 26, Saturday, November 27, and Friday, December 24, plus additional 8pm performances on Wednesday, November 24 and Wednesday, December 22. There are no performances on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and there is no evening performance on Christmas Eve. The Nutcracker plays at the Chopin Upstairs Theatre 1543 W. Division St., Chicago). Regular tickets are $25 and $10 for students/industry at the door. The Nutcracker is The House’s holiday show and is not included with The House’s 2010/2011 season subscription (but subscribers do receive $5 off all tickets). Tickets may be purchased by calling (773) 769-3832 or online at www.TheHouseTheatre.com.

     
     
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