Review: The Alchemist (Nothing Special Productions)

     
     

17th-century farce delivers rich hoaxes, prosperous laughs

     
     

A scene from Nothing Special Production's 'The Alchemist', written by Ben Johnson and directed by Gregory Peters. Photo credit: Michael Laird

  
Nothing Special Productions presents
  
The Alchemist
  
Written by Ben Johnson
Adapted by Gregory Peters
Directed by Jack Dugan Carpenter
at Heartland Studio
, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through April 30  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Love? Riches? Fairytalk?  Whatever you’re in the market for, the alchemist is selling it for cash or velvet.  Nothing Special Productions presents The Alchemist.  A trio of swindlers conjure up dreamy elixirs for the villagers in need.  The scams are housed in a deserted mansion.  Dazzling promises lure the customers into the illusion. The people are foolish. The hoaxes are elaborate.  The payoff is pure gold.  The Alchemist guarantees riches and delivers it as prosperous laughs!

A scene from Nothing Special Production's 'The Alchemist', written by Ben Johnson and directed by Gregory Peters. Photo credit: Michael LairdLike an ongoing ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch, the buffoonery is riotous.  Jack Dugan Carpenter directs the huge cast through the mazed intrigue.  Carpenter paces the mega set-ups with a zippy revolving door feel.  At the core of the mayhem, the household rogues (Andrew Marchetti, Sean McGill, Melissa Imbogno) don numerous disguises and personas to work their magic.  It’s a burlesques-style slapstick! Continuous almost-being-found-out moments add to the hilarity.  In one scene, the threesome act out a fascinating elfin attack.  Their giggly enjoyment of the charade makes it feel improvised.  Marchetti and McGill are a dynamic duo.  Their synergy is perfected comedic timing. The talented ensemble add to the punch line with exaggerated spoofs.  In particular, two supporting actors stand out in stealing ways.  Matt Castellvi pontificates in grandiosity. His Laurence Olivier-like theatrics are hysterical.  A lanky Ken Miller escalates the joke with uttering one word, ‘sis-star.‘                      

Playwright Gregory Peters has updated Ben Johnson’s farce from the 1600’s.  Peters keeps the formal prose but weaves in a modern twist to the multiple entanglements.  By intermission, the number of grifts in progress is exhausting.  Not because the audience isn’t entertained but because they know ALL the scams must resolve before the show can end.  To adapt a play for the 21st first century, you need to adapt to an audience with a tweet-size attention span.  By limiting characters and eliminating scenes, this long con could be an excellent hustle!

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

A scene from Nothing Special Production's 'The Alchemist', written by Ben Johnson and directed by Gregory Peters. Photo credit: Michael Laird

The Alchemist continues through April 30th at the Boho Theatre in Rogers Park, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and, Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets are $15, and can be purchased online. The show’s running time is two hours and forty minutes, which includes an intermission.


Cast

Sean McGill (Face); Andrew Marchetti (Subtle); Melissa Imbrogno (Doll); Tony Kaehny (Dapper/Officer); Scott Sawa (Drugger); Chad Brown (Ananias); Matt Castellvi Mammon); Conor Burke (Surly); Patrick Byrnes (Tribulation); Ken Miller (Kastril); KaCee J. Hudson (Pliant); Joshua Razavi (Lovewit)

All photo by Michael Laird

  
  

REVIEW: Closer (AstonRep Theatre)

  
  

Endless scene changes stifle strong ensemble work

  
  

CloserPoster

  
AstonRep Theatre Company presents
   
Closer
  
Written by Patrick Marber
Directed by Rob Cramer
at
Heartland Studio Theatre, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through March 5  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Patrick Marber’s magnum opus Closer hits like a Classical tragedy with “Friends” era embellishment. Marber won a shelf-full of awards and recognition for the play, but has since gone on to craft such garbage as “The Tourist” screenplay. In 2004, he turned the play into a Julia Roberts/Jude Law vehicle and found raving mainstream audiences. Closer is now one of about five plays you’ll probably find on any given Borders’ drama section.

Despite the hype, the play packs a punch, drawing comparisons to Brits like Noel Coward and Harold Pinter. Unlike much of the schlock coming out of the late ‘90s/early aughts (Proof, anybody?), Marber writes harrowing thematic depth and dense, conflicted characters. The play does indeed feel like a period piece of the ‘90’s.

AstonRep Theatre Company’s mission is to bring theatre to non-theatre audiences, which perhaps explains choosing such a well-known piece for their second production. Snuggly fit in the BoHo space in Rogers Park, their production doesn’t seem to go anywhere conceptually. What saves the show from total destruction is Marber’s deft writing sensibilities and an incredibly talented cast.

Overall, the production feels like an acting class final. The talent on-stage contrasts starkly with the poor production values, creating a strange rift that never resolves.

The four-actor piece follows two men and two women over a few years. The characters meet, have sex, fall in love (or not), and inevitably break up and squash each others’ hearts, not always in that order. Dan (Ray Kasper), an obituary writer, meets Alice (newcomer Aja Wiltshire), an ex-stripper prone to falling in front of moving cars. As the months go on, Anna (Amy Kasper) and Larry (Robert Tobin) get thrown into the mix. Affairs spiral off in all sorts of directions, most end in emotional explosions. Then there is the making up, marriages, divorces, and long talks in strip clubs.

Ray Kasper, although too old for the part, works well against Wiltshire, easily the most charming member of the cast. Although he can’t nail Larry’s anger, Robert Tobin finds and plays up the humor. Amy Kasper makes bold choices from the beginning. The cast struggle with some of the weightier moments of the play, although they are always in sync with the dramatic arch of the piece.

Director Rob Cramer’s production is extremely hampered by amateurish stumbling blocks. The transitions are the most glaring issues, making a 90 minute script into well over 2 hours. There are twelve scenes in the play. Here, each transition is done in blackout, without any music, and without any creativity. The AstonRep gang forgets that this is all part of the show, too. Designer Lea Tobin’s set feels rushed and inadequate. We see all the wires, but we shouldn’t. I wish Cramer lessened everything and just focused on his cast. A simpler touch would make the show quicker, clearer, and more engaging.

I’ll be honest, considering the missteps, I thought this was going to be a groaner of a production. But the cast really pull the play together, forging the believably convoluted relationships that Marber requires. Even the scene where Dan and Larry interact in a sex chat room, for example, is hilariously crude yet Kasper and Tobin use it to reveal quite a lot about each character.

Marber’s writing dabbles a bit in romantic comedy, melodrama, and tragedy, but Closer defies any neat Hollywood genre placement. Unlike many writers of our time, he allows the story to drive itself in any direction it needs. The folks behind AstonRep understand this, but they aren’t able to articulate it.

  
   
Rating: ★★
  
  

Artists

 

CastAmy Kasper, Ray Kasper, Robert Tobin, and Aja Wiltshire.

Production: Rob Cramer (Director), Jeremiah Barr (Assistant Director), Samantha Barr (Lighting Design, Stage Manager) and Lea Tobin (Scenic Design, Graphic Designer).

  
  

REVIEW: Striking 12 (BoHo Theatre)

  
  

Good music does not a good musical make

  
  

Dustin Valenta, Mallory Nees, Eric Loughlin, Amy Steele

  
BoHo Theatre presents
  
  
Striking 12
 
Book/Music/Lyrics by Brendan Milburn,
Rachel Sheinkin and Valeria Vigoda 
Directed by
Lara Filip
at
BoHo Theatre, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through Jan 8  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Striking 12 isn’t so much a musical as it is a rock concert with a dramatic flare. The self-aware holiday play is about a fake rock band that tells the tale of a lonely man on New Year’s Eve who in turn tells the tale of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl”. It’s a story within a story within a story, but thanks to the lack of complexity and depth given to each plot line, it’s never particularly difficult to follow.

Dustin Valenta, Amy Steele, Mallory Nees, Eric LoughlinThe play begins with a bit of self-referential comedy and audience interaction. The actors enter and launch into a song about overtures that describes the conventions of an overture. The "band" then informs us that they are all actors before breaking the fourth wall by getting a band name from the audience. (The night I went they were Purple Nurple.)

Eventually, a story emerges about a recently single man (Eric Loughlin) who is alone on New Year’s Eve. Rather than attend the party of his wild and crazy friend (Dustin Valenta), he decides to sit like a bump on a log in the confines of his apartment. He is then visited by a door-to-door saleswoman (Mallory Nees), who is peddling full-spectrum holiday lights that fight off the winter blues. He denies her the sale, but not before having a brief conversation about “The Little Match Girl.” This inspires him to read the short story, which then becomes the dominating plot line of the play.

When there is less than 90 minutes to flesh out several concentric plots, you know the story is going to be a little light. And Striking 12 certainly is lacking when it comes to a compelling through line. But that’s not really what this play is about. Written by three successful musicians/composers (Brendan Milburn, Rachel Sheinkin and Valerie Vigoda), the selling point is the music and the talent of the performers. This certainly is a demanding production in that the actors must not only be able to act effectively, but they must also be able to sing and play instruments as well. And each one of the performers in BoHo Theatre Company’s production certainly is a triple threat. Valenta can drum and sing simultaneously, which is no easy task. Amy Steele is a gifted violinist and vocalist, while Nees’ ability to play guitar, bass, ukulele and the squeezebox is impressive.

Dustin Valenta, Mallory NeesBut is this good theatre? The music is catchy and reminiscent of artists like Ben Folds. The humor is bland, but it has its moments. The problem is the story. How can you have a good play without a compelling story? Striking 12‘s plot feels like an afterthought, as if the writers tried to squeeze elements of story into the piece after the music had been completed. By the play’s end, you have a few songs stuck in your head but not much else.

Additionally, the BoHo Theatre’s space doesn’t have the acoustics for a show like this. Vocals are easily overpowered by the thumps of a bass drum or even the singing of violin strings. The audio quality is akin to a basement rock show. The piece would be better served in a more spacious venue where the band doesn’t almost sit on top of the audience.

If you’re in the mood for a holiday-themed rock show, Striking 12 is a decent watch. But if you’re looking for good theatre, you’re striking out.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Mallory Nees, Eric Loughlin, Amy Steele, Dustin Valenta

  
  

  
  

REVIEW: Labour and Leisure (AstonRep Theatre)

  
   

Scant balm for the working man

  
  

Good-Faithful Servant 1

  
AstonRep Theatre Company presents
   
Labour & Leisure
   
Written by Joe Orton
Directed by
Ray Kasper and Robert Tobin
at Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through Dec 11  |  tickets: $12   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Swinging into Christmas pageant season, few shows currently playing are as relevant or timely as AstonRep Theatre Company’s remount of lesser-known Joe Orton works under the title Labour & Leisure. Orton is best known for savaging hypocritical middle class morality in Entertaining Mr. Sloane and What the Butler Saw. One finds his queer eye at work in both of AstonRep’s twin productions The Good and Faithful Servant, directed by Ray Kasper, and The Erpingham Camp, directed by Robert Tobin. But his blue-collar origins in Leicester and a six-month stint in jail, for hilariously defacing library books, schooled Orton well in the corrupt hypocrisies of capitalist civilization. What better Christmas present could jobless Chicagoans give themselves (besides a job) than a gander at these miniature productions, with a few well-placed caveats, of course?

Erpingham-Hysterical-Eileen-WebThe Heartland Studio is a merciless black box. Kasper’s direction and Jeremiah Barr’s scenic design don’t really resolve the difficulties of setting apart clean and recognizable scene spaces in The Good and Faithful Servant. The cast struggles to ensure smooth transitions from scene to scene, but to no avail. At least Mrs. Vealfoy (Amy Kasper), one of the upper echelons of “the firm,” has a fine perch from which to dominate any hapless individual who enters her lair.

Thankfully, not just Mrs. Vealfoy, but Amy Kasper dominates the show. Kasper knows how to give her ruthless corporate villainess just the right touch of flirtatious charm. So whether she is ordering about the meek and deferential (read: enslaved) Buchanan (Jeff McVann), drawing Debbie (Sara Greenfield) into her schemes, or roping Ray (John Collins) under her oppressive wings, one feels the emotional compulsion to go along with whatever she wants. Only the strong survive in this world. The weak get black lung and a flaming toaster for 45 years of life-sapping service.

McVann, as Buchanan, is terribly strong in his comic portrayal of the stiffed working stiff. His opening scene, where Buchanan prosaically reunites with his long lost love Edith (Barbara Button), is a model of comic understatement. Button makes an excellent and charming comic partner. However, slips in dialect from her and other cast members adversely impact their performances. Greenfield does a humorous turn in both plays as an excessively pregnant young woman, but her pairing with Collins doesn’t match the strong comic connections formed between McVann and Button. Collins himself needs to bring a little more punk to his role as Ray, even if his working class roué ultimately capitulates to the firm in the end.

Erpingham-Press-1-WebThe cast of The Erpingham Camp fairs much better, if for no other reason than they get to work in less cumbersome space. Ms. Vealfoy’s perch is preserved for Mr. Erpingham (Jeff McVann), the ruler . . . uh . . . owner of this eponymous recreational resort. Here, McVann gives us pompous, self-absorbed, dictatorial asshole with both barrels, while the ill-used Chief Redcoat Riley (Kipp Moorman) sucks up to his boss in order to win the job of entertainment director during the camp’s evening entertainments. At first, Mr. Erpingham refuses. He has a much better suck-up, both figuratively and literally, in the otherwise absurdly useless Padre (Ray Kasper), the camp’s resident man of the cloth.

Nevertheless, Riley finally wins his favorite position when the camp’s entertainment director dies and no one else can fill his place. Entertainment at Erpingham Camp relies on the exuberant, if pedestrian, talents of buxom Jessie Mason (Charlie Casino) and nervous W. E. Harrison (John Collins). As for the victims/campers, Ted (Ian Knox) and Lou (Kathleen Lawlor) make for perfect conservative professional twits matched against the ultra-pregnant Eileen (Sara Greenfield) and her muscular, doltish working class husband, Kenny (Johnny Garcia).

Of course, Riley fucks it up and, of course, his fuck-up leads to a camp revolt of epic proportions. I’m just grateful that he made “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” as gay as possible before the revolution.

In the wake of revolt, Mr. Erphingham and his pal, the Padre, come across like Hitler and his entourage in their last days in the bunker. Their pronouncements on art, religion, order and the classes are distinctly funny. Heaven only knows why they think they still have control of things, but the revolutionaries are not much better. Ted and Lou seem to think they can run this revolt using the civil defense handbook, while Kenny only needs to apotheosize his pregnant wife to justify tearing the camp down.

However, the award for best insanity of the night goes to Moorman, for impeccably delivering, as Riley, the most beautifully ridiculous and untruthful eulogy for Mr. Erpingham. Even for the little guy, there comes a moment of vindication.

   
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Erpingham-Love,-Divine-1Web

 

Production Personnel

Cast: Barbara Button, Charlie Cascino, John Collins, Johnny Garcia, Sara Greenfield, Amy Kasper, Ray Kasper, Ian Knox, Kathleen Lawlor, Jeff McVann, and Kipp Moorman.

Production Team: Direction by Ray Kasper and Robert Tobin, Stage Management by Samantha Barr. Set, lighting, and prop design by Jeremiah Barr. Fight choreography by Charlie Cascino. Graphic Design by Lea Tobin.

     
     

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REVIEW: Equus (Ludicrous Theatre)

Ludicrous horses around with modern classic

 

Eqqus - Ludicrous Theatre - poster

    
Ludicrous Theatre presents
   
Equus
   
Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by
Wayne Shaw
at
Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through November 6th  |  tickets: $15   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Probably my favorite aspect of Peter Shaffer’s 1976 psychological mindbender Equus is the hodgepodge of a religion he creates, one that cherry picks Christian themes and collides them with children books and commercial jingles. And horses, of course. Alan Strang, the head priest and sole member of Shaffer’s cult, creates a faith from everything that surrounds him. In particular, I love the word Alan gives the sacred riding bit, “chinkle-chankle,” and the devout seriousness in which he utters the babyish term. While usually goofy and occasionally unsettling, Alan’s horse-worship serves as a jumping-off point for a quest for spirituality in our modern world. After seeing any production of Equus, Shaffer’s views leave me rattled. Ludicrous Theatre’s production understands the play, but director Wayne Shaw is unable to effectively communicate the drama’s full power.

100_0604In a bold attempt to make the play seem more relevant, Ludicrous’ big “twist” on the script is changing Shaffer’s Southern English countryside setting to an area a few miles outside of Reno, Nevada. There’s at least one Sarah Palin t-shirt and several large belt buckles. The changes pretty much stop there. One wonders if Alan’s father Frank, who is described as “an old time socialist,” would be readily found in such an environment. In the end, the new take doesn’t really do much damage or enlightenment. Shaw and his cast have much bigger issues to worry about, anyway.

Buried in Ludicrous’ mission statement is the desire to explore the spiritual and the sexual on-stage. Equus provides plenty of fodder for both. I don’t know if I have every seen more balls on display for longer periods of time, and I’m not sure if I ever will. For most of the two-and-a-half hour piece, Justin Landry stands upstage completely naked besides a wire contraption shaped like a horse’s head. Shaw gets his Alan, Ian McCabe, nude as often as he possibly can. The nudity is interesting in certain respects (horses are naked, after all). It becomes over-the-top and cringe-worthy in several spots—especially when Alan is actively recounting his arousing experience riding Nugget (Landry). We end up with something that looks an awful lot like anal sex, but really awkward.

Staging in general is a weak point of Shaw’s. The production doesn’t really know how to handle the more abstract moments, such as when Alan recounts his first ride on a horse. A lot of the movement is unmotivated as well. There’s an old-time film noir feel to the acting—the cast pushes at the melodrama whenever they can, standing up just to sit back down, moving across the stage to signal distress or deep thought, etc.

 

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Kevin Heller is miscast as Dysart, Alan’s psychologist and spinner of this yarn. In voice and appearance Heller comes off as far too young. Conversely, McCabe comes off way too old. They change his age to 20 from the scripted 17, but this leads to more questions. Part of what makes Shaffer’s play so gripping is the fact that Alan is so young; place the character a few years older, and you wonder why no one found his antics strange, or how a kid who can barely read graduated high school.

There is a (most likely unintentional) brilliance in Heller’s casting. His Dysart is wooden, boring, and clinical. While not great acting, it brought to mind the thematic clash at the heart of the story, begrudging acceptance of mediocrity vs. explosive spiritual awakening.

This sort of accidental freshness pervades the whole production. The over-the-top style and uneven acting ability somehow still showcases the play, much more than the imposed alterations. McCabe manages to nail Alan’s flailing mysticism, a crucial requirement. This is by no means the definitive Equus (it’s not even the best storefront Equus this year—Red Twist had a much better handle), yet, at the end of the night, you will leave meditating on what divides the holy from the unholy in this world.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
   

Ludicrous Theatre's Equus Cast

CAST: Kevin Heller as Martin Dysart, Ian McCabe as Alan Strang, Robert Dean Wells as Frank Strang, Elizabeth “Missy” Styles as Dora Strang, Suzanne Bracken as Hester Salomon, Kristen Bjorge as Jill Mason, Josh Becker as Harry Dalton, Justin Landry as Nugget and Amy Gray as Nurse.

       
       

Review: Apocalypso (Point of Contention Theatre)

Fractured tales of Armageddon

 

Apocalypso - Point of Contention Theatre

   
Point of Contention Theatre presents
   
Apocalyso
   
Written by William Donnelly
Directed by
Timothy Bambara
at Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through October 2nd   |  tickets: $10-$15   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

It must be getting close to another pivotal prediction time in the history of humankind. Apocalypso is rife with hints of New Age philosophy, 20-something aimlessness, and Generation X hitting the wall. Yes, 2012 looms and there is hair in the Cocoa Puffs. I would not quite call this play by William Donnelly a comedy as it is billed. There are some funny lines but this is more of a post-millennial musing of the Absurd.

The Point of Contention Theatre Company is known for breakneck dialogue, seamless direction, and quirky expressionistic takes on reality. I have to say that Apocalypso doesn’t quite nail the mark as well as past works like The Wonder (our review ★★★½) or Vanishing Points. (our review ★★★)

To be clear, there are some fine performances in this play, but the action and the narrative don’t flow that well. Apocalypso is set during the holiday season between Christmas and New Years’ Eve in small town America. We are introduced to a washed up school janitor named Gus, getting hammered with a newly divorced Boone. Mike Rice and Zach Livingston play the roles respectively. They make fine work of portraying guys on a cheap beer bender in the Upper Peninsula. Gus stokes his drinking buddy with misogynistic remarks and manly feats of dog care while stealing none too bright Boone’s wallet. Catherina Kusch as Sherry the bartender is a standout. Kusch plays the part of a woman who accepts anything rather than being alone with a weary dignity and touch of fierceness. In the midst of the holiday binge, a derelict-looking woman appears, speaks of a message, then disappears.

Boone (Livingston) wakes up in the apartment of his friend Walt, played by Jared Nell. Mr. Livingston has a fine grasp of the broad comedy strokes of the sofa-surfing Boone who – wearing only boots, underwear and a torn bathrobe – is a site. Calling Oscar Madison!  Mr. Nell’s Walt is the unfortunate consumer of the hirsute breakfast cereal. Walt appears to be a pushover and if it quacks like a duck….you know the rest.

Into this fracas is thrown the characters of Boone’s manipulative ex-wife Gin (Heather Brodie), her ever accommodating sister Cal (Megan E. Brown), and her secretive husband Dwight, played by Tony Kaehny. I was left wondering how this could be called a comedy at all after watching the painful scene between the sisters Gin and Cal.

Gin cannot let go of Boone and calls him at ridiculous hours to request random objects like CD’s or small appliances. The sight of Walt sitting in a car holding a circa-70’s blender should have elicited a bigger laugh in my opinion. The humor was tempered by the looming angst that hangs in every scene of Apocalypso.  I should want to care about these characters but I cannot. They are so self-involved and oblivious to the meaning behind all of their existential spouting that I was hoping for an Armageddon full of endless Calypso dancing. In fact, the only character that brought levity and honesty to the play was Dora, played by Jennifer Betancourt. She appears like a vision to each character, speaking her message with evangelical zeal. Betancourt is wonderful as the possibly delusional Dora. She claims to be from the Council of Fate and Determination, sent to tell the world of the end times. Dora is darkly funny, as we all have seen someone like her on the train or a downtown street corner preaching in a filthy parka. The humor is this: perhaps they are right. They grasp onto just enough kernels of truth to make one wonder ‘what if?’ and then shake it off, inferring insanity on the messenger.

We discover that Dora is the sister of Walt and she warns him about the end of the world and the Cocoa Puffs. Walt explains that Dora is off of her meds and thought that she was indeed the Lamb of God as a child. Dora manages to inject honesty into these character’s lives by calling things as they are in the midst of listening to their mewling half steps toward honesty.

These people do not treat each other well, and normally that works as a dramatic device to push the action forward. In Apocalypso, the human cruelty just stalls the flow of the play. The marriage of Cal and Dwight is played like a soap opera with a plot of philandering and regret. By the time Cal is awakened by Dora and calls Dwight on his BS the only humor is found in an expletive and a demand for tea.

I have to say that I found Donnelly’s dialogue and theme oddly reminiscent of the novel “Nine Kinds of Naked” by Tony Vigorito. There is talk of tornadoes, allusions to synchronicity, and being reborn naked after the Rapture. Perhaps it is homage; perhaps it is a coincidence that I will allow as synchronicity.

The production’s performances are quite good. It is a disappointment, then, that the direction seems to pace the scenes in a fractured manner. Sometimes comedy is serious and sometimes it calls for broad strokes to elicit a knowing chuckle. This is a bit too serious where the material could be mined for more self-recognition. There should be at least a conga line.

   
  
Rating: ★★½
  
    

 Apocalypso runs through October 2nd at the Boho Theatre @ Heartland Studio. Times are Thursday through Saturday at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Contact www.pointofcontention.org for more information and tickets.

     
     

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REVIEW: Talk Radio (State Theatre)

Small storefront ends its inaugural season with a roar

 

State Theatre - Talk Radio - Production Image 1

   
State Theatre presents
   
Talk Radio
   
Written by Eric Bogosian
Directed by Ross Matsuda
at
Heartland Studio Theater, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through August 15th   | 
tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

When Eric Bogosian’s Talk Radio premiered in 1987, shock jocks and morning zoo crews dominated the air waves. You couldn’t drive to work without some knucklehead on the dial making crass jokes or belittling his audience. It was sadism and masochism at its most commercial.

Today, the market has changed, but unfortunately not for the better. Radio—now competing for attention with television and the Internet—is threatened to become a relic of the past. And so, to survive, it has tweaked its format. Many of the shock jocks and zoo crews of yesterday couldn’t adapt. But some have evolved into a new beast that is even more vile and wretched than a thousand Howard Sterns. That’s right. The talking head. The political pundit. The Glenn Beck.

State Theatre - Talk Radio - Production Image 2 The play’s antihero is of this Glenn Beck ilk minus the religious piety but with the need to belittle, fear monger and win every argument intact. His name is Barry Champlain (Nathan Randall), and he’s a Cleveland late-night DJ, who as of tomorrow will be going national.

We get a sneak peak into a charged episode of the show. Callers include a 15-year-old pregnant girl whose deadbeat boyfriend skipped town, a woman who is deathly afraid of her garbage disposal and a teenaged burnout whose girlfriend may or may not have just suffered a drug overdose.

Intermittently, between this string of callers, we get a sneak peak inside Barry’s psyche. His colleagues provide brief monologues that detail their relationship with Barry, revealing a confused and deeply disturbed individual who has turned his back on himself only to recede further into the depths of dementia.

As caller after caller chimes in with another fear, question or inane statement, Barry becomes increasingly agitated. Slowly, the radio host begins to question himself and his audience. Is he an entertainer or a public servant? Is he part of the solution or the mouthpiece for the problem?

Talk Radio is only as good as your Barry Champlain. And the State Theatre has found an amazing Champlain in Randall. His performance is unwavering in its callousness and coldness. His eyes are fiery with a flame that is at once both outwardly searing and self-engulfing. This is a character who is consumed by himself, and whose self-vitriol is projected out to millions of listeners. He is not a likeable character, and Randall doesn’t make you like him. But Randall does make you believe in him; that he is real and right in front of you and that you should hate him. And I hated him, which is why I loved Randall’s performance.

The supporting actors all do good work, and Tyler Ravelson, who plays the stoner teenager Kent, deserves to be spotlighted. Growing up in suburbia, I’ve seen my share of dopey doped up teenagers, and I can say that Ravelson’s portrayal is a carbon copy. In addition, there is such a smoothness to his performance, so much so that when Kent suddenly commandeers the in-studio mic, it feels spontaneous and unscripted.

State Theatre - Talk Radio - Nathan Randall and Tyler Ravelson

The production’s only drawback is the play’s use of a video feed during the first half. Rather than sticking with voiceovers for callers, the play’s director, Ross Matsuda, decided to go with a Webcam feed projected on a translucent screen behind Barry. The images are a distraction from the callers’ words, and as an audience member, I want to use my imagination to envision Barry’s listeners.

In a world of 24-hour news cycles that merge editorial with opinion, that live by the motto “If it bleeds, it leads,” that serve less to inform and more to threaten, Talk Radio is a highly relevant piece of drama. Who knows? You may even find some solace in the play because, although Barry Champlain might not embody the solution, his existence at least reveals that others out there know there’s a problem.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Extra Credit: