Review: The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen (Strange Tree Group)

     
     

It’s bawdy! It’s wacky! It’s macabre! It’s true!

   
  

Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Full Cast Shot featuring Stuart Ritter, Matt Holzfeind, & Scott

  
Strange Tree Group presents
   
The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen
  
Written by Emily Schwartz
Directed by
Jimmy McDermott
at
Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I confess! I secretly watch some of the cable ‘reality’ shows about men and women who snap and take out a bumbling hit on their hapless wealthy spouses. Who doesn’t love a good juicy scandal that involves sex, drugs, and charming pre-Vaudeville songs? The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen is a fun romp through the Daguerreotyped and yellowed pages of a Gilded Age tabloid scandal.

Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Matt Holzfeind, Stuart Ritter, & Scott Cupper as Doctor CrippenThe Strange Tree Group has presented a new take on the true case of Dr. Hawley Harvey Crippen. In 1910, the milquetoast Dr. Crippen allegedly knocked his trampy spouse off and buried her torso in the basement and then took to the high seas with his girlfriend.

This is a sardonic tale that is made funnier of course by the classic ingredients of comedy: tragedy plus time = comedy. Three actors as the Public, Private, and Fantasy personas divide the character created around H.H. Crippen. Stuart Ritter, Scott Cupper, and Matt Holzfeind play them respectively. It is a great device because each persona is a goldmine of material and might be overwhelming if played by one actor. The three actors bounce off of each other with breakneck dialogue and double takes. They regularly break the fourth wall and speak directly to the audience. “What about the corpse?” That is a line repeated to great effect for laughs. After all, there is a dismembered body in a claw foot tub while the three personas argue over what to do.

Speaking of great affect, I loved Kate Nawrocki as the deliciously trampy, spoiled, and doomed Cora Crippen. She has the wonderful look of a Gibson girl gone bad.

Playing the opposite and supposedly good girl is Delia Baseman as Ethel LeNeve. Ms. Baseman plays the part of innocent waif mixed with Olive Oyl. It’s fun to see her go from office drone to obviously a little freaky for milquetoast and a dead tramp’s mink coat.

The entire cast is pitch perfect rolling in and out of scenes and talking to the audience in character. The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen is a Thomas Nast caricature come to life. The songs are sung in the old Vaudeville style touching on the pre-burlesque edginess. Ms. Nawrocki does the harlot sings like Victorian waif to perfection. She is first seen in the claw foot tub surrounded by shiny balloon bubbles. The balloons are popped in burlesque manner when Cora blasts into her true colors and corset. Cora Crippen meets her death in that same tub in true tragicomic fashion. The lurid red satin ‘entrails’ and beating heart precede le piece de resistance- a lock of Cora’s hair. It’s funny on two fronts: it’s what put the noose around the real H.H. Crippen’s neck and it’s a hair weave. See my previous confession about trashy reality television. Cat fights and hair weaves abound when past meets present in this quirky and fun production.

     
Matt Holzfeind and Kate Nawrocki as Cora and Hawley Crippen Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Delia Baseman as Ethel Le Neve and Stuart Ritter as Doctor Crippen.  Photo credit: Tyler Core
Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - - Stuart Ritter, Matt Holzfeind, Scott Cupper, & Delia Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group 012

I got the feeling of a sepia toned “Laugh In” set with one liners delivered with perfect timing. Cory Aiello pops in and out as Crippen’s son Otto. He doesn’t have a lot of dialogue but is spot on through facial expression and body language. The tittering ladies of the social set are quite fun and nicely cast. Carol Enoch, Jenifer Henry, and Jennifer Marschand are dressed in lurid red as they query the audience about telegrams. They enter and exit in staccato steps that give the effect of an early film reel.

All of the actors are made up in white face and bright red cheeks in a nod to the macabre theme of death and romance. Ms. Baseman also designed the costumes for The Three Faces.  She makes excellent choices to recall an era gone by. The pre-show is fun and intriguing as well, with Baseman and Nawrocki singing songs from the Gilded Age. The character of Ethel clacks away at her typewriter relentlessly in rhythm as Cora lounges in the bath exuding luxuriance and a louche attitude. I wish, however, that they had projected a bit better. Some of the lyrics to “A Bicycle Built for Two” got lost or dropped. I’m a music geek from back in the day but it would have served the plotline to hear the innocence of the words in contrast to the deviant behavior.

Strange Tree Productions states that they are committed to producing pieces that celebrate the strange and the magical…and the surprisingly usual nature of unusual behavior. They have succeeded with The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen. From this day forth, I will always question a handlebar moustache and check the labels on my homeopathic medicines!

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Three Faces of Dr. Crippen - Strange Tree Group - Bob Kruse, Kate Nawrocki, & Cory Aiello

The Three Faces of Dr. Crippen plays through April 24th as part of Steppenwolf’s 2nd Annual Garage Repertory. These are plays from edgy and talented playwrights and theatre companies on the cutting edge of the craft. They are housed at Steppenwolf’s Merle Reskin Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted. More info at www.strangetree.org

All photos by Tyler Core.

     
     

REVIEW: The Twins Would Like to Say (Dog & Pony Theatre)

The curious case of Jennifer and June

 

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Dog & Pony Theatre presents:
 
The Twins Would Like to Say
 
Written and directed by Devon de Mayo and Seth Bockley
Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through April 25th (more info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

Note: This review was originally published on March 1 on Chicago Examiner.com

Just like the titular twins, you can’t escape mirror images in The Twins Would Like to Say. With Dog & Pony’s innovative examination of the curious case of June and Jennifer Gibbons, ever-shifting halls of mirrors offer both literal reflections of the twins’ lives and a metaphor for them.

twins-and-dadWritten and directed by Devon de Mayo and Seth Bockley, the staging for the Steppenwolf Theatre’s Garage Rep series was inspired by the Gibbons twins, born in 1963. As children, the pair made a pact to do everything in absolute unison, and to speak with no one but each other. Extraordinarily, they succeeded for 20 years, all but entirely silent outside the confines of their bedroom, despite the frustrated efforts of their parents and a cadre of psychiatrists who remained utterly stumped. When separated, the twins became catatonic.

Their lives are whitewashed a bit here – June and Jennifer’s lengthy criminal records, tragic incarceration and Jennifer’s early death are glossed over in a dreamscape of stylized movement. Yet from the lookalike parrot puppets that open the show to the two simultaneously played sorrowful scenes that end it, The Twins Would Like to Say is cryptic, playful and innovative.  

Bockley’s deft at intermingling sadness, beauty and sound (if you saw Boneyard Prayer, you don’t need us to tell you that). de Mayo’s ability to configure a story into non-linear, non-traditional formats received a well-deserved and high-powered spotlight  with Dog and Pony’s The Vivian Girls, which she devised and directed. Together, the pair constitutes a dream team of unexpected storytelling.

The Twins Would LIke to Say is theater as a tumble down the rabbit hole and into an ever-shifting funhouse maze where reality is warped and the line separating fantasy from reality is fluid. By using a promenade staging, Bockley and de Mayo ensure the audience is an active part of the story –  Rather than sit back and watch as they might with traditional stagings, ticket holders have to participate, moving from room to room as the scenes progress.

The audience’s entrée through the lookingglass is Mr. Nobody (Nick Leininger, a winning mix of the sinister and the sympathetic ), who ushers the audience behind a curtain with the flourish of a side-show huckster keen to have the audience to learn about some strange unknown world rather than just gawk at it.

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publisher-letters twins2

The first visual we get of June (Paige Collins) and Jennifer (Ashleigh LaThrop) is both spooky and enthralling. Standing stock still at the dead end of a long hall, the girls stare out with dead eyes, an adolescent vision of those twins from the Overlook Hotel in “The Shining.” 

The promenade structure isn’t without drawbacks. Among them: You’d have to see the piece at least twice to take in it all in. See it only once, and you’re forced to choose between scenes. Eavesdrop on the twins’ psychologist (Kasey Foster) trying to make sense of their behavior, and you become keenly aware that you’re missing what’s going on elsewhere, as dialogue floats in from some unseen periphery. No matter how deft the performances or compelling the action, you’re often left wondering if you’ve made the right choice – and if something more interesting is going on just around the corner.

That shortcoming is especially evident in the final scene, when the audience is split in half and divided by an opaque black curtain. Too say that missing half of the piece’s conclusion is immensely frustrating is an understatement.

That aside, the performances in The Twins Would Like to Say are marvelous, cryptic, playful depictions of people living in a world that’s half stylized fantasy and half brutal reality.

Collins and Ashleigh are wonderful, giggling and whispering in their room like teenage girls the world over up; silent, sullen and above all fearful whenever they’re forced to contend with the outside world. As their taunting, eerie classmates Kathryn Hribar and Teeny Lamothe are cruel and typical teens, shrill voices and nasal giggles evoking a thousand mean girls nightmares. (In real life, Jennifer and June were bullied so badly, their school allowed them to leave 5 minutes early, so as to get a head start on the kids who wanted to beat them up.)

As the twins mother Gloria, Millie Langford is the kind, patient, enabling opposite of the twins father Aubrey (Brandon Boler), whose tough love cruelty results in a cacophony of torment when the twins are forcibly separated.

separation

To depict the intricate fantasies that June and Jennifer spun by filling journals full of elaborate fictions, de Mayo and Bockley stage plays-within-the-play, bringing the pulp fiction storylines and outrageous sexuality of  such dubious works as  “The Pepsi Cola Addict” and “Discomania” (Dan Stermer’s disco choreographer is absolutely delicious). Andrea Everman’s shadow puppets also make the twins’ stories pop with vibrance. All seen in silhouette, a snarling dog, a dying boy and a bereaved father takes on emotional resonance rich in childlike poignance.

The Gibbons lives are by no means completely rendered here, but that hardly matters. What we do get in the 60-minute production is a chance to enter an alternate universe of intricate storytelling.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

The Twins Would Like to Say  runs through April 25 in the Steppenwolf Garage, 1624 N. Halsted.  Tickets are $20, $12 students and pay-what-you-can Wednesdays. A three-play pass to the Garage Rep series also including XIII Pocket’s Adore (our review ★★½) and Pavement Group’s punkplay (our review ★★★) is $45. For a performance schedule and ticket information, click here or go to http://www.steppenwolf.org.

 

 

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