Review: No More Dead Dogs (Griffin Theatre)

  
  

Griffin Theatre focuses on ‘Dead Dog’ fun

  
   

Alex Kyger, Colton Dillion, Cameron Harms, Jeff Duhigg and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

  
Griffin Theatre presents
  
  
No More Dead Dogs
   
Based on novel by Gordon Korman
Adapted by William Massolia
Directed by Dorothy Milne
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Just what is it about children’s literature? On the one hand, classics in the genre can zap heartstrings and endear us to them forever. On the other hand, they, too, fall back on tired formulas that make us wonder what we ever saw in them. Heaven help the public school teacher trying to turn kids onto literature using “age appropriate” work from the 1950s. Wallace Wallace (Ryan Lempka) is just the kind of kid who won’t accept that kind of fodder without blunt and unforgiving commentary. Griffin Theatre’s latest production at Theatre Wit, No More Dead Dogs, follows Wallace’s keen observation that many books for young people, such as “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows”, often have dogs die in them in order to foster some tear-jerking Ellie Reed and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"realization about life for the young reader. (Don’t get us started about Bambi.)

But dead dogs and orphaned deer aside, Griffin’s show, under the easy, swift and agile direction of Dorothy Milne, is a joyous romp for both cast and audience. Co-Artistic Director William Massolia has adapted Gordon Korman’s best-selling comic novel for the stage and his light handling of the ‘tween material usually carries off without a hitch. Wallace, having been lied to so often by his Dad (Jeff Duhigg), simply cannot bring himself to lie about anything, ever—including how much he thinks the book he’s assigned to report, “Old Shep, My Pal”, stinks. Too bad his English teacher, Mr. Fogelman (Jeremy Fisher), can’t accept that his favorite children’s classic may be past its prime. He perpetually puts Wallace in detention until he can write a book report that meets with his approval. What could have been Wallace’s irresistible force running into Fogelman’s immovable object instead morphs into school jock meets the drama club, since Fogelman has adapted “Old Shep, My Pal” for their next production.

By no means is No More Dead Dogs a John Hughes drama. Crafted for younger audiences, the comedy kindly skirts the rancor between high school cliques. Indeed, sub-cultural clashes become virtually negligible once Wallace starts updating Fogelman’s adaptation to something his classmates can relate to. This includes incorporating Vito’s (Joey deBettencourt) garage band, The Dead Mangoes, into the production, much to Fogelman’s chagrin. Lempka strongly shows he knows the importance of being earnest in his humorously straightforward interpretation of Wallace. Fisher, however, almost steals the show, as Fogelman journeys from escalating frustration over his play being usurped, to hip cat on a sax once the band tells him he can join.

          
 Cameron Harms, Jeff Duhigg and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs" Ellie Reed and Joey Eovaldi in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

Ellie Reed and Cameron Harms in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs". (background: The Mangos)

Indeed, much as the play spoofs stale children’s lit, the show looks strangely reminiscent of zany, overtly physical 50s comedy, where every character pretty much stays in type and the show winds up even more crazy from there. Milne’s direction never overplays its hand but always builds the action to its appropriately goofy outcomes. Wallace is solidly flanked by his football buddies and the nerdier drama club, with Joey Eovaldi adding coy and energetic mischief in his role as the younger Dylan. Would that the parts of Rachel (Elllie Reed) and Trudi (Samantha Dubina) could have gone beyond girls-with-crushes-on-the-lead cliches—but at least Reed and Dubin handle their characters sportingly and generously. In fact, one would be hard put to find a more good-natured production, focused solely on dealing out firm and lively fun for the young, than this.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Joey deBettencourt, Erin O'Shea, Morgan Maher and Jeremy Fisher as The Mangos in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

Griffin Theatre’s No More Dead Dogs continues at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through June 19th, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25-$30, and can be purchased by phone (773-975-8150) or online.  More info at www.griffintheatre.com.

  
  

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Review: Freedom, NY (Teatro Vista)

     
     

Subtle play offers powerful epiphanies of diversity and trust

     
     

(from left) Cheryl Lynn Bruce is Justice Mayflower, and Desmin Borges plays Gabriel, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s Freedom, NY.  (Photo: Eddie Torres)

  
Teatro Vista presents
   
  
Freedom, NY
  
  
Written by Jennifer Barclay
Directed by Joe Minoso
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 12  |  tickets: $20-25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

America is always struggling to change immigration into integration. But not all the battles are fought at frontiers. Far from any border patrols and electric fences, Freedom, NY depicts a less violent but more common interracial conflict. Presented with warmth and finally crowned in concord, Jennifer Barclay’s new play focuses on next-door neighbors, two black and one Latino. Here a psychological border, the kind we carry wherever we go, must be overcome before misunderstandings lead to worse.

(from left) Paige Collins is 12-year-old Portia, and Cheryl Lynn Bruce plays Portia’s grandmother and protector Justice Mayflower, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s "Freedom, NY." (Photo: Eddie Torres) The play’s divisions between neighbors—and members of minorities–are more mental than physical. On one side Mayflower, a flinty African-American justice of the peace, tends her marigolds and protectively isolates her 12-year-old granddaughter Portia against all adversity. A year ago, a school shooting and a child abduction persuaded Mayflower to cut Portia off from the outside world. (Apparently, Mayflower’s tough-love approach already frightened off her daughter, who fled to Nebraska.)

Symbolizing that outside world is newly arrived Gabriel, a recent immigrant who works as school janitor, hoping to save enough to bring his family from Mexico. Meanwhile, he brightly decorates his bare yard for the “Dia de Los Muertos,” where he will symbolically bury his mother. (She had dreamed of coming to Freedom but wasn’t able to make it alive.)

Telling Gabriel that the neighbors “don’t like how you look,” Mayflower puts up a fence between them as we wonder what it will take to get her to take it down.

The economically written, 80-minute drama depicts how Mayflower, less accepting than curious and pent-up Portia, overcomes her xenophobia and distrust of diversity. She finally realizes that Gabriel is not connected with child abductions or illegal burials. There are no world-shaking revelations here. What we see, honestly and persuasively, are just quiet efforts to preserve decency despite change. These shape the world more than elections or even revolution.

Minoso’s sensitive staging builds tiny epiphanies into moments of truth that cumulatively matter. Cheryl Lynn Bruce plays stubborn but well-intentioned Mayflower with tough tenacity and enough defensiveness to show she’s human beneath her fear. Desmin Borges’ Gabriel, almost too vibrantly colorful for the conditions, brims with open-hearted trust, even as his apostrophes to his dead mother question his stability. Most amazing is the awesomely natural performance of Paige Collins as questioning Portia. She represents America’s future, when we finally prove that, yes, Rodney King, we can all get along.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
   

(from left) Paige Collins is Portia, and Desmin Borges plays Gabriel, in Teatro Vista’s world premiere of Jennifer Barclay’s "Freedom, NY".  (Photo: Eddie Torres)

Teatro Vista’s Freedom, NY continues through June 12th at their new venue, Theater Wit (1229 W. Belmont),  with performances Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm.  Tickets are $25 ($20 for students and seniors), and can be purchased by phone (773-975-8150) or online at teatrovista.org. Freedom, NY runs approximately 75 minutes.      All photos by Eddie Torres.

  
  

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Review: Cubicle! An Office Space Musical (New Millennium)

  
  

A contemporary classic becomes a mangled musical

 
 

New Millennium Theatre presents "Cubicle! An Office Space Musical"

    
New Millennium Theatre presents
   
   
Cubicle! An Office Space Musical
   
  
Adapted by Ian McPhaden and Steven D. Attanasie Jr.
Original music by Megan Piccochi
Directed by Laura Coleman & Sean Harklerode
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 4  |  tickets: $17-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

The musical theatre landscape of today is riddled with the picked over remains of derivative ideas. It’s not that the genre doesn’t have the ability to be new and fresh (see The Book of Mormon or Next to Normal). It’s just that it’s perceived to be easier and less risky to take a previously successful work, abridge it and insert some songs to fill the gaps. The problem is that this method results in such monstrosities as Spiderman Turn Off the Dark.

New Millennium Theatre presents "Cubicle! An Office Space Musical"In 2005, New Millennium Theatre Company took this formula and applied it to the movie “Office Space”, the hilarious 1999 Mike Judge comedy about the ironies of office life. The company has revived its musical—christened Cubicle! An Office Space Musical. Although I can’t speak for the original production, the current production is a play that only a true hardcore fan of the movie could love. And even then, this might be pushing it. For though the script is a very close adaptation of the movie, the caliber of talent is lacking. This is a musical sung by non-singers who do not have the luxury of proper technical tools to lift their voices above the muffling canned score.

The play is about everyman Peter (Joseph H. White), a white-collar cubicle dweller who can’t stand the rat race. His office features all the common annoyances of contemporary work life, from a confusing hierarchy of middle managers to unexpected weekend workdays. After a hypnotherapy session goes awry, Peter is awoken to life’s zest and decides to seize the day by becoming an utter and complete slacker. Fortuitously, this attitude ends up benefiting him in his work life.

Other plot elements include Peter’s love interest Rachel (Kelly Parker), a disgruntled waitress at a TGI Friday’s style restaurant; Peter’s friends Michael Bolton (Michael James Graf) and Samir (Rafael Torres), who help him execute a plan to embezzle thousands of dollars from the company; and Milton (Guy Schingoethe), the meek and mentally unstable employee who threatens to burn the building to the ground if he doesn’t get his red stapler back.

New Millennium is working with a solid script. The adaptation, penned by Ian McPhaden and Steven D. Attanasie Jr., rips much of the movie’s famous dialogue word for word right down to the famous "O face" scene. You would think it’s too identical to the film to fail.

But it does fail. And it has everything to do with the musical part of this musical. The singing is just atrocious. Much of the songs are spoken with a singsong affect. And even the rap numbers, which don’t require a gift for melody, are executed with a disappointing lack of passion and commitment. The performers, whose vocal strength can be likened to a light breeze, lack microphones, which makes it all the more impossible to hear the lyrics over the pre-recorded tracks. Speaking of which, the music is also problematic. Musical director Megan Piccochi has created a cacophonous and rather uncatchy series of songs that fail to stick. Rather than rely on clear and straightforward instrumentation, she has spliced pre-existing songs with digital samples to create a tangle of audio.

There are two saving graces to this show. The number "Flair" is by far and away the musical’s best. Much of this can be credited to performer Adam Rosowicz, who gives a dynamic performance and sports a strong voice. The other high point is Schingoethe, whose portrayal of Milton is captivating. His powerful pipes eclipse the majority of the cast.

If you’re a giant fan of “Office Space”, you may derive pleasure out of Cubicle! If you are a fan of musicals, prepare to be disappointed. And if you like to go to bed early, drink some coffee (the show runs from about 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m.).

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

New Millennium Theatre presents "Cubicle! An Office Space Musical"

Cubicle! An Office Space Musical will run Friday and Saturday nights May 6th through June 4th at 11:00pm at Theater Wit (1229 W. Belmont Ave.). Tickets are $20 at the door or $17 in advance. There will be a limited number of half price tickets available through goldstar.com and hottix. For more information, or to purchase tickets, call 773-975-8150 or visit www.nmtchicago.org.

  
 

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Review: Soul Samurai (Infusion Theatre Company)

     
     

Not quite enough soul in ‘Soul Samurai’

     
     

Glenn Stanton, Megan Tabaque, Paul Tadalan, Christine Lin, Zach Livingston, Anji White.

  
Infusion Theatre Company presents
   
Soul Samurai
  
Written by Qui Nguyen
Directed by Mitch Golob
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $15-$25   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel 

Bloodthirsty shoguns run a post-apocalyptic New York City. A female warrior seeks revenge for her murdered girlfriend, armed with only a katana and a wise-cracking sidekick.

It’s a pretty sweet premise for a play. Especially when a live DJ is scoring the activities and comic book-style video projections provide visual gimmickry. Infusion Theatre Company’s production of Qui Nguyen’s Soul Samurai promises to attract nerds and action-addicts alike. If only the product lived up to the hype.

Nguyen’s play falls into the same pit many of the action movies he’s sending up fall into. Instead of a cohesive plot, the story just seems to be an excuse for the next battle. Even with director Mitch Golob at the helm and Geoff Coates crafting the complex sword brawls, the production can’t overcome the play’s flaws. The pacing of the entire show is jilted and the fights seem to be running at about 75%, not full Christine Lin, Amy Dellagiarino in Infusion Theatre's 'Soul Samurai' by Qui Nguyen. Evan Lee, Christine Lin in a scene from Infusion Theatre's Soul Samurai by Qui Ngyuen. Photo by Anthony LaPennaspeed. It’s fun, but it is not fun enough.

Nguyen writes in a style that is half neo-Kung Fu flick and half Blaxploitation. He sets his story several years after New York City has fallen to ultra-violent gangs and a few genuine psychopaths. We follow Dewdrop (Christine Lin) as she seeks to avenge the death of her lover, Sally December (Amy Dellagiarino), who was attacked by a mob of bad guys right in front of Dewdrop’s eyes. The narrative is chopped up so we also see how Dewdrop went from a demure, Asian college student to an urban Amazon. She battles through to Brooklyn, along with her loudmouthed pal Cert (Steve Thomas). But as she slashes deeper into the city, the thugs get more sinister. And maybe a soul-deprived Sally December is among them. Like any good hero, Dewdrop presses on to the bloody end.

I have to give Infusion props for bringing a tale on-stage that you usually don’t see—something action-based instead of focusing on a bunch of characters jabbering the whole time. Although the play is a unique beast for theatre, it doesn’t feel entirely original. While “Kill Bill” was Tarantino’s homage to Hong Kong cinema, it was also an entirely new tale. Soul Samurai seems like an homage to “Kill Bill”. It doesn’t help that the soundtrack is referenced at least twice.

While his production generally exudes the cool necessary for something like this, Golob’s show is flawed. On paper, the running time was an hour and 45 minutes; in reality, the show clocked a half hour over that. A lot of that was due to slow transitions Master Leroy (Evan Lee), Dewdrop (Christine Lin)and dragging scenes, including a training montage that overstays it’s welcome. And on opening night, at least, the on-stage action, music, and video weren’t entirely synced up.

The cast captures Nguyen’s tough, dog-eat-dog style well. Lin has a bit of tough time commanding the space, but she finds it eventually. She’s got the spunk, but she can’t always externalize it. Thomas is the highlight of the show, always flying at a breakneck pace and delivering his profanity-laced witticisms with flair. Other favorites include Glenn Stanton as a pimp-coat donning shogun and Evan Lee as the stereotypical sensei (“Sally” comes out as “Sarry”).

Considering how cool the show could be, the end product is just sort of disappointing. There’s a lot of flash, and Jesse Livingston’s musical styling adds some fun. But, for me anyway, it wasn’t enough to cover up the holes in Nguyen’s pedestrian script. How often, though, is there a chance to see live samurai battles in this city? The slice-and-dice novelty is indeed worth checking out.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Evan Lee, Christine Lin in a scene from Infusion Theatre's Soul Samurai by Qui Ngyuen. Photo by Anthony LaPenna

Soul Samurai runs April 28 – June 5 at Theater Wit, 1229 W Belmont Ave.
The performance schedule is Thursday – Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 3
p.m. Tickets are $25 during the run with student, senior and industry
discounts available. Industry tickets, $15, are available at all Thursday
performances. Tickets may be purchased by calling 773-975-8150 or at
infusiontheatre.com.   

Photos by Anthony LaPenna

  

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Review: Dirty Blonde (Boho Theatre Ensemble)

  
  

Playing dress-up with Mae West

  
  

Anne Sheridan Smith, David Tibble and Nicholas Bailey

   
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Dirty Blonde
     
Written by Claudia Shear
Directed by Steve Genovese
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $25  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

There’s only one bona fide cross-dressing scene in Claudia Shear’s romantic comedy, but somehow the entire Bohemian Theatre Ensemble production resembles a drag show. Maybe that’s due to the inherent campiness of its central character, film legend Mae West. Maybe it’s because nearly every other character, past and present, actor or non-actor, speaks with a larger-than-life showbiz dialect. Or maybe it’s because, like a drag show, Boho’s play is saturated in self-awareness, nudging reminders of its own innocence and desires to be bigger, glossier, and sillier than ‘the real thing.’

Anne Sheridan Smith Those aren’t bad qualities for a West send-up. When a handsome young man (Nicholas Bailey) gives a warm little speech to open the show before plucking out an upbeat ditty at his upright piano, expectations for heightened reality and playfulness are set out. But West’s jovial and frivolous journey from vaudeville troublemaker to adored movie quip-machine fills only half of Dirty Blonde. That half is fun to watch. For reasons left unclear, Shear gives equal time to a modern-day romance between two star-crossed West fanatics, and their courtship is where director Stephen M. Genovese’s play begins to tear at the seams.

Celebrating her icon’s birthday, Jo (Anne Sheridan Smith, who does double duty as Mae) visits West’s crypt, where she bumps into Charlie, a skittish loner who works at the New York Public Library Film Archives. Realizing their mutual infatuation, Charlie and Jo become friends.

Ambiguously defined friends, at least, and that’s the crux of their story. When Charlie sneaks Jo into work to get stoned and poke fun at West’s reprehensible latter work, it’s not spelled out whether they’re platonically bonding, becoming each other’s fag & hag sidekicks, or dating. Charlie’s sexuality is intentionally left up in the air (though David Tibble plays him as a raging queen afraid of his own shadow), opening the opportunity for some intriguing, provocative ideas. Pot gives way to a hand on the leg; booze encourages an attempted kiss in a cab.

If the present-day scenes were more thought out and the characters more intricately drawn, they’d have enough legs for their own play. As it stands, their purpose is mostly just to mark time between historical anecdotes and amusing fictionalizations of the eponymous doydy blonde actress. Smith’s workable impression and slick delivery of classic scandalous one-liners makes the West plot watchable, but there’s only so much she can do to salvage Jo, especially opposite Tibble’s mealy depiction of Charlie.

     
Anne Sheridan Smith David Tibble and Anne Sheridan Smith

Which brings us to the cross-dressing scene: the play’s climax, and the most indicative moment of where the production’s faults are. Dramatically, one of three things typically occur when you put a man in women’s clothing.

1) shallow hilarity: video example

2) a solidification of identity, where supposedly ‘unnatural’ acts appears more natural and appropriate: example

3) an additional layering of an already enigmatic character: example

Revealing himself to Jo in a dress, Charlie educes none of these. The moment is stilted and awkward—it’s clear Genovese was going for liberating and cathartic. A more affecting scene depicts a young Charlie donning the gown to serve as a doppelganger for the ailing West at an appearance. Facing the crowds for her, Charlie comes into his own, and favor that’s savory for its dream realized and bitter for its underlying necessity. By this point, we’ve already spent so much time with future Charlie that his character is already defined, and for the most part, unpleasant.

If only the stage and script were built big enough for both queens.

  
  
Rating: ★★
     
  

Nicholas Bailey, Anne Sheridan Smith and David Tibble

 

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Review: This (Theater Wit)

 
  

Theater Wit exposes adultery with intelligence and grace

  
  

Rebecca Spence and John Byrnes in 'This' at Theater Wit. Photo by Johnny Knight.

  
Theater Wit presents
  
This
  
Written by Melissa James Gibson
Directed by
Jeremy Wechsler 
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through March 27  |  tickets: $24  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

What if “the other woman” was not some scheming, seductive siren but your best friend? Many dramas make melodramatic hash out of both kinds of scenarios but This, the latest production of Theater Wit, keeps a cool, compassionate head about sexual transgressions between friends. Melissa James Gibson’s comic script handles the subject with insight, gentle maturity and grace. Theater Wit has a hit on its hands because This demonstrates the right mix of humor and common sense about relationships, love, loss, and recovery. Meanwhile, Jeremy Wechsler’s direction is nothing less than a deft touch–keeping the action clear, light and decidedly on track.

Rebecca Spence as Jane in 'This' at Theater Wit.  Photo by Johnny Knight.Jane (Rebecca Spence) has spent the past year grieving the death of her husband, Roy. Fortunately, she’s had the support of her friends from college, Tom (John Byrnes) and Marrill (Lily Mojekwu), who are married and having their first child; and Alan (Mitchell J. Fain), the “gay friend.” While the gay friend has pretty much become a stock character for contemporary comedy, Fain makes the role distinctly his own, delivering Gibson’s dialogue with a razor sharp edge, which makes the humor more vivid and Alan’s personal revelations more poignant.

Jane’s friendships with these three carry their own sharp edge; the play is quite knowing about the ways friendships can both nourish and undermine the individual. Dinner at Tom and Merrill’s starts with Merrill’s attempts to set up Jane with a new guy, Jean-Pierre (Steve Hadnagy), but it also subjects Jane to a game that puts her on the spot and pulls more information out of her than she’s ready to reveal. Later, Tom shows up on Jane’s doorstep, confessing to a well of untapped desire for her. Jane’s slip-up with Tom acts as the catalyst to plumb whole underlying assumptions her friends have about her and about each other.

The show is not just about Jane but also about how a group of friends handles the rocky changes within long-term relationships—new stresses, miscommunication, unspoken needs and momentary betrayals. Scene after scene regales the audience with witty banter, but the play never strays too far from the loss really haunting Jane. Spence makes every moment count–both her surrender to Tom and her final meltdown are convincingly real. Merrill’s postpartum malaise over her marriage to Tom is grounded by Mojekwu’s solid intelligence and sensuality. Byrnes brings the right level of silent frustration to Tom getting shut out in the marriage. As for Hadnagy’s portrayal of Jean-Pierre, he keeps a light touch—all the better to play an easygoing continental without falling into French-y caricature.

If there are any flaws to the play’s otherwise realistic portrayal of friendship and relationships, it’s in Tom and Merrill’s rather rapid recovery after Jane has let the cat out of the bag about her and Tom’s affair. Also, Alan’s perfect memory–to establish the truth of Merrill and Tom’s He Said/She Said moments—comes across as more of a contrivance than actual drama. But the smoothness with which the cast skates through Gibson’s script redeems these flaws. Wechsler’s cast engages the script with an enviable liquid alacrity, creating scenes with instinctually fluid reactions between people who have known each other for ages. For all the burden of Jane’s secret shame and the pressured snippiness between Tom and Merrill, these are people who like each other and rely on each other’s company as a witness to their lives. No matter what their flaws, they are just the people to bring Jane back to the land of the living.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Rebecca Spence and Lily Mojekwu in Theater Wit's "This". Photo by Johnny Knight.

Mitchell J. Fain and Rebecca Spence in Theater Wit's "This". Photo by Johnny Knight. Rebecca Spence and John Byrnes in Theater Wit's "This". Photo by Johnny Knight.

This continues through March 27th, with performance  Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m., and Sunday at 2 p.m.   Single tickets are $15 to $35.  For tickets and information, visit TheaterWit.org or call the Theater Wit box office, 773.975.8150.

    
     

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Review: A Twist of Water (Route 66 Theatre)

  
  

Now extended through June 26th!!

An ode to family, hardship, rebirth: A contemporary masterpiece

  
  

Stef Tovar in a scene from Route 66 Theatre's 'A Twist of Water'.  Projections by John Boesche.

  
Route 66 Theatre Company presents
       
A Twist of Water
  
Written by Caitlin Montanye Parrish
Co-Created and Directed by Erica L. Weiss
at Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport, Chicago
through June 26  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Route 66 Theatre‘s world premier of A Twist of Water accomplishes a rare theatrical feat. It balances genuine poignancy with sharp wit all while evoking real human emotion. There is nothing maudlin about this play. There is no contrivance or trite scenarios. You will cry real tears as you sympathize with the fictional characters who feel very, very real.

The play is about a family, Noah (Stef Tovar) and his adopted daughter Jira (Falashay Pearson). Noah’s long-time partner and Jira’s other father recently passed away in a tragic accident. As the two cope with the loss, the death begins to serve as an invisible wedge that drives them apart.

Falashay Pearson and Stef Tovar in a scene from Route 66 Theatre's 'A Twist of Water'. Noah seeks solace in his youthful colleague Liam (Alex Hugh Brown), who has an affinity for Carl Sandburg. Both are teachers, and, to complicate matters, Liam is Jira’s instructor. This places Liam in a precarious situation, where one loyalty rests with Jira as her teacher and another with Noah as his potential lover.

Meanwhile, Jira wishes to expand the scope of her family, and so she seeks out her birth mother. Noah takes this as a personal condemnation of his parenthood, further splitting father and daughter apart. Their relationship is further fleshed out as we discover just what happened in the hospital the day that Noah’s partner died.

Throughout, we hear Noah’s inner thoughts through a series of monologues. These monologues, beautifully told and breathtakingly staged, compare the hope, destruction and rebirth of his life with that of the city of Chicago, from its original founding to the Great Fire to the rebuilding. It’s a lovely and poetic parallel that effectively conveys the protagonist’s personal evolution.

Playwright Caitlin Montanye Parrish, along with director and co-creator Erica Weiss, have put to paper a contemporary masterpiece. This script is tight. Liam’s snarky humor is punchy and laugh-out-loud funny. Emotionally charged scenes crescendo and decrescendo organically. Each character’s histories are examined, providing the audience with necessary insights into their motivations. There are no questions left unanswered that demand an answer. It’s such a welcome sight to see a script produced that has undergone a complete and thorough editing process before being put to the stage.

Tovar’s portrayal of Noah is realistically complex. He adeptly performs the range of emotions required of this layered play. In one scene, he is a lovestruck widower. In another, he’s a heartbroken father. No matter what, he’s always convincing.

Meanwhile, young Pearson—who is making her post-collegiate theatrical debut—holds her own. She portrays Jira as an emotionally confused teenager while steering clear of melodrama. As for Brown, his confident, subdued portrayal of Liam is perfectly paired with Tovar’s angsty Noah.

I would be remiss to not make mention of the scenic design, which is practically a character itself. Developed collaboratively by Stephen H. Carmody, Sean Mallary and John Boesche, the stage is a three-dimensional blank canvas that is colored by a shifting series of projections. It allows the characters to exist in both real space and metaphysical environments.

A Twist of Water is an important play that speaks to our time. Hopefully it will see an extended run because it deserves a large audience. Just remember to bring a tissue because, when I saw it, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Stef Tovar and Alex Hugh Brown in a scene from Route 66 Theatre's 'A Twist of Water'.

A Twist of Water continues through June 26th, with performances Thursday, Friday, and Saturday at 7:30pm, and Sunday at 2:30pm. All performances at Mercury Theater, 3745 N. Southport.  More info at http://twistofwater.wordpress.com/about/.

  
  

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