REVIEW: Dead Pile (XIII Pocket Ensemble)

  
  

Vegan play is all potatoes, no meat

  
  

Cast from XIII Pocket's  'Dead Pile': (left to right) Allie Long, Andy Lutz,  Justin James Farley (center), Mark Minton and Chip Davis.  Photo credit: Michael Litchfield

   
XIII Pocket Ensemble presents
   
Dead Pile
  
Written by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by Megan Shuchman
at Theater Wit, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru Feb 27  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

There are a couple positive things about XIII Pocket’s Dead Pile. For one, the play features some impressive acting talent. Justin James Farley as the animal-rights investigator protagonist delivers his lines with a distinct genuineness, even when the script is laughably melodramatic. Likewise, Andy Lutz (making his Chicago debut) injects some much-needed levity into his role as the alcoholic, antagonistic farmhand.

The other compliment I’ll pay is that – for a play that centers around such hot-button issues as animal rights, food production and ethical veganism – it avoids the pitfall of being too preachy. We never get that worn diatribe about the systemic abuses that plague dairy farms and meat producers. After all, propaganda (even if it is propaganda that this theater critic agrees with) does not necessarily make for good storytelling. Unfortunately, even without the predictable soapboxing, Dead Pile is dead on arrival.

Scene from XIII Pocket's 'Dead Pile' - (top) Andy Lutz (bottom) Allie Long and Justin James Farley. Photo credit: Michael LitchfieldThe play is about an animal rights investigator named Jeremy who is sent out on assignment by his non-profit boss (Chip Davis) to infiltrate a dairy farm. Once on the farm, Jeremy encounters a colorful cast of trite, two-dimensional caricatures. We have Russell (Mark Minton), the farmer’s progressive son who wants to transform his daddy’s property into an organic farm. Then there’s R.J. (Lutz), the tough farmhand who’s aggressive with women, yells at football games and likes beer too much. And finally we have Nance (Allie Long), the superfluous love interest who has bigger dreams than to be bound to an Indiana farm.

As Jeremy conducts his investigation, he’s continually pressured by his non-profit supervisors to gather animal abuse evidence so they can make a bust. Meanwhile, he’s warming up to Nance and Russell, which could compromise matters. It also means he’s probably not a competent investigator, but I guess that’s beside the point.

Playwright Laura Jacqmin‘s inhumane treatment of the audience is worthy of a PETA investigation. She muddles the play with unnecessary details while simultaneously robbing us of what should be the most dramatic scenes. The fact that Jeremy is black is brought up too many times without enough justification for its presence. Are we supposed to be surprised that not all Indiana farmers are racist bigots? And why end the first act with a frantic voice over, when you could just stage what sounds like a really engaging scene? And what about the big reveal, that moment that the audience has been anticipating the entire play where Jeremy’s status is revealed? It is done so swiftly and with no impact that it’s pointless that he reveals it at all.

Another major flaw is the melodrama. The biggest offending scene is one in which Jeremy and Nance share what might be the most forced intimate moment I have ever seen staged. Seriously, this scene has everything, from a Lifetime-esque sob story about Jeremy’s invalid brother to Nance begging Jeremy to take her with him when he leaves because, after all, anywhere is better than here.

I reserve additional criticism for Megan Shuchman, whose direction comes across as thoughtless. What purpose does it serve to have Davey visible to the audience throughout the entire play? What is the deal with the set design? With all the thrown about windowpanes, wood scraps and bric-a-brac it resembles the eye of a tornado more than a farm. Why waste stage space with an office and a bedroom you barely use while your actors are forced to largely perform in an ambiguous setting?

So while I applaud Jacqmin for striving to craft a story that refuses to preach to the choir, I fault her for producing an amateur script where the audience is robbed of sympathetic characters and climaxes. Concentrate on writing a good play with a great story, compelling scenes and dynamic characters. Without that as your base, your audience will wonder, "Where’s the beef?"

     
     
Rating: ★½
   
   

Dead Pile continues thru February 27th, running Thursdays-Sundays, February 4-27, at 8pm.  Performances occur at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago. Tickets priced at  $20 general admission and $12 student/senior. To purchase tickets, call the Stage 773 box office at 773-327-5252.  More info at http://www.xiiipocket.com.

Dead Pile - XIII Pocket Theater - banner

        
        

Continue reading

REVIEW: Conviction (Maya Productions at Theater Wit)

  
  

Strong solo performance resuscitates lagging script

  
  

Ami Dayan playing Andres Gonzales in 'Conviction' by Oren Neeman.

  
Maya Productions presents
  
Conviction
  
Written by Oren Neeman
Performed by
Ami Dayan
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through Feb 20  |  tickets: $18-$28  |  more info

Reviewed by Allegra Gallian

Conviction, adapted from the novel “Confession” by Yonatan Ben Nachum, is based on true stories from the time of the Spanish Inquisition. In a time when Catholicism was the sole accepted religion – if you chose to ignore the rule it was punishable by death – the story of a Catholic priest renouncing his vows to marry a Jewish woman is a story worth telling.

Maya Productions, based in Colorado, has brought their production of Conviction to Theater Wit. Featuring Ami Dayan, Conviction is a one-man show retelling this compelling story.

The set consists of a black background on which actual Spanish Inquisition trial documents are projected. Very little set pieces fill the stage, save for a single desk and chair, a kneeler and a stack of black boxes. The rest of the stage is left bare, allowing the story to fill up the space, leaving ample room for Dayan to move around.

Conviction tells the story of Andrés Gonzáles (Ami Dayan), and is split between a 1960’s interrogation of a man who stole documents while researching a genealogy project, and Gonzáles confessing the sins of his story to his fellow priest and long-time friend in the fifteenth century. As the show begins, it’s clear that Dayan, though on point and very well prepared, is not immediately accessible. It feels like there’s a wall up between Dayan and the audience which has to be broken down. Over the course of the show, it eventually is, but it’s taken down brick by brick at times in the beginning. Once Dayan switches from interrogator to Gonzáles in the confessional, he really hits his stride and his characterization opens up to the audience.

Dayan is completely devoted to his character and his performance. He morphs into his character, shedding his actor persona and embodying fully the persona of Gonzáles. As he connects more to the audience,retelling the story of Gonzáles’s secret love affair with the Jewish woman Isabel and how he eventually renounces his role as a priest to marry her, he’s charming and intriguing. Dayan performs not only with his voice but with his whole body and his very animated facial expressions that help portray both the emotions and the actions of the story.

Despite Dayan’s powerful performance, however, the show tends to drag at points. Particularly in the beginning, the action is slow moving and dense. As Conviction progresses the action does begin to pick up the pace as Dayan settles into the character of Gonzáles, and becomes more captivating, moving the action along.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Conviction plays at Theatre Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through February 20. Tickets cost $27.50 and can be purchased by calling 773-975-8150.

  
  

REVIEW: The Elephant Man (Boho Theatre)

  
  

Boho fills stage with profound, meticulous performances

  
  

Mike Tepeli as John Merrick and Laura Rook, Stephanie Sullivan, and Jill Connolly as the Pinheads. Photo by Peter Coombs.

  
The Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
     
The Elephant Man
   
Written by Bernard Pomerance
Directed by
June Eubanks
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through Feb 6  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Review by Paige Listerud

Just what is the price for belonging and acceptance? What if one can never fulfill the requirements for being part of the society of the human race, no matter how gentle, law-abiding and meritorious one is, no matter what efforts others make to provide some integration? Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man is unique in that it takes these issues to absolute extremes and forces us to see ourselves through its funhouse mirror. Boho Theatre has mounted an elegant, stately and psychologically mature production at Theatre Wit. June Eubanks’ direction adheres to the minimalist aesthetic and self-consciousness theatricality the play was born in, crystallizing Mike Tepeli as John Merrick and Steve O'Connell as Frederick Treves. Photo by Peter Coombs.poetically profound moments that elevate language much in the same way that John Merrick (Mike Tepeli) describes the effect of the uplifting architecture of St. Philip’s church.

John Merrick, dubbed the ‘Elephant Man’, and his place in late Victorian society, is uplifted for our gaze. He is a man who can never stop being a spectacle; his life, trapped in outrageous physical deformity, is constantly at the mercy of what the rest of his fellow humans see and suppose of him. I can praise the excellence with which Tepeli assumes Merrick’s form, virtually pretzel-twisting himself into character at the beginning of each scene, but more excellent is the way he captures Merrick’s childlike, innocent acceptance of himself, of those around him and his lot in life. Just as powerful are Merrick’s moments questioning, from his bath, Treves’ notions of established order or the rush of intense emotion upon Merrick once he shakes Mrs. Kendall’s (Cameron Feagin) hand for the first time–or loosing her, on Treves’ orders. Tepeli has completely mastered his role, with assurance the audience can relax into watching how others respond to him.

Likewise, Steve O’Connell’s Treves has all smooth and put-together bearing of a clueless do-gooder just beginning to realize how dubious his mercy towards Merrick is and how little he can do to alter the inequities between them. His relationship with Merrick seamlessly sets into motion Treves’ re-examination of his culture’s social inequality. When he begins to crack under unbearable conundrums about his real value, as a respected member of the British Empire or as a human being, O’Connell sculpts Treves’ emotional downfall with intricate care–his breakdown in the arms of Bishop How (Thad Azur) is every bit the epiphany it is supposed to be.

     
Steve O'Connell as Frederick Treves, Mike Tepeli as John Merrick, Cameron Feagin as Mrs. Kendall. Photo by Peter Coombs. Zach Bloomfield as Ross and Mike Tepeli as John Merrick. Photo by Peter Coombs.

The same meticulous care can be witnessed in every aspect of Boho’s production—one of the more scintillating aspects being that the rest of the cast take on multiple roles and carve a unique, distinctive character with each role. Cameron Feagin indelibly etches both the horrified missionary Nurse Sandwich and the charmingly controlled and worldly actress Mrs. Kendall. Zach Bloomfield’s Ross is devastating, particularly when he comes begging to Merrick in the hospital for another crack at being his handler—Bloomfield and Tepeli could conduct an acting masterclass based on that scene study alone. Michael Kingston’s turn as Carr Gomm brings the right note of complacency to his foil for Treves—an administrator quite content to oversee Merrick’s care, so long as his freakish presence keeps the money rolling in to the hospital in donations from the upper classes.

Indeed, the only flaws of the production may be its still awkward scene changes. Jill Vanc’s projection of scene titles and their announcement at each scene purposely heighten The Elephant Man’s theatricality. But upon opening the show still suffered some clumsiness in actors getting on and off through the transition—a problem that could be worked out in the course of the run.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Thad Anzur as Bishop How, Michael Kingston as Carr Gomm, Mike Tepeli as John Merrick, Michael Mercier as Lord John, Cameron Feagin as Mrs. Kendall, Steve O'Connell as Frederick Treves. Photo by Peter Coombs

Photo (left to right): Thad Anzur as Bishop How, Michael Kingston as Carr Gomm, Mike Tepeli as John Merrick, Michael Mercier as Lord John, Cameron Feagin as Mrs. Kendall, Steve O’Connell as Frederick Treves. (photo by Peter Coombs / Boho)

     
     

REVIEW: Float (About Face Theatre)

  
  

‘FLOAT’ rises to the top

  
  

float - About Face Theatre

   
About Face Theatre presents
   
FLOAT
   
Written by Patricia Kane
Directed by
Leslie B. Danzig
at Theater Wit, 1220 W. Belmont (map)
through December 12th  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

In writing, archetypes are a gift and a burden. On one hand, they serve as shorthand characterization, eliminating the need for lengthy and clunky exposition. On the other hand, they are trite, predictable and rather one-dimensional. The trick as a writer is to toe this line. A good playwright will draft characters that rely on familiar characteristics while embodying personalities that are wholly original.

About Face’s world premier of Patricia Kane‘s FLOAT, a play about five Midwestern women forced to confront life’s big issues, could have become a cartoon. After all, it’s fun to mock small-town Midwestern mindsets and the cluckiness of female gossipmongers. And it’s also easy. Instead, Kane takes the high road and delivers a complex and compelling script that is edge-of-your-seat entertaining from beginning to end. Oh, don’t doubt that there’s a good dose of humor – but the laughs are underpinned by the many layers of conflict that bring these five women to life.

The play takes place in Doodee’s (Wendy Robie) barn. By her nature, she is a taskmaster and has taken it upon herself to spearhead the development of the women society’s annual Christmas float. Doodee is joined by her fellow society members, including the young Luce (Amy Matheny), real estate broker Char (Rengin Altay), the difficult Arletta (Peggy Roeder) and the new girl in town Marty (Adrienne Cury).

As the characters construct the holiday float in the first act, conversations turn to matters of religion and ethics. Old-timers Doodee and Arletta are stuck in their ways. In their opinion, there is a right and a wrong, and people deserve to be judged for their indiscretions. Luce, Marty and Char are more forgiving. In fact, Marty fondly quotes the Buddha, choosing to live by the code of live and let live.

By the end of the first act, the cheeriness that had filled the room earlier has faded as unpleasant secrets are revealed. Conflicts arise not just from exterior sources, but also from within as well. And Doodee is left decorating the float alone, listening to holiday songs while on the verge of tears. It’s a powerful act break that makes you resent intermission.

With Kane’s gift for writing and the cast’s gift for performance, this play is near perfection. Kane has molded three-dimensional characters with extraordinarily full lives and back stories. It is because of how thoroughly we know these characters that we can connect with them on such a deep level. In addition, I found no action or piece of dialogue to be out of character. Each woman was distinct and consistent in her nature.

Of course, these accolades can also be attributed to the actresses. Not one is a weak link. From Arletta’s manic episodes to Doodee’s brooding scowl to Marty’s love-struck smirk, the actresses’ genuineness, care and thought shine through. I can easily see the onstage chemistry congealing even more throughout the duration of the run.

Leslie B. Danzig‘s direction is nearly flawless. The whole play takes place in one cramped barn bustling with five scrambling women. Yet, through careful blocking, Danzig manages to give the actors some space, except of course when they are sharing an embrace under the mistletoe.

There was one small scene I’d like to see performed differently. In the second act, Marty conducts an exercise with the widowed Arletta to help her deal with her grief. The scene ends with an interesting revelation from Arletta, but the whole thing goes by too quickly. My recommendation is to slow this scene down, let it breath and it will feel more natural.

FLOAT is a wonderful holiday treat that pleases on a variety of levels. It’s funny, it’s sincere and it’s thought provoking. Plus, it’s got a dynamite cast. If you’re tired of all the holiday fluff that gets thrown on stage this time of year, check out FLOAT.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
   
   

Review: Kingsville (Stage Left Theatre)

   

Exposing the poisonous threads of macho culture

   
    

Nick DiLeonardi as Mike and Andrew Raia as Justin  – Photo by Lila Stromer

     
Stage Left Theatre presents
 
Kingsville
    
Written by Andrew Hinderaker
Directed by Vance Smith
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through November 21  |    tickets: $22-$28 |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

When the student gunmen opened fire at Columbine High School in 1999, the nation took a collective gasp. The very idea that schools could become a place of intentional yet random mass murder was unimaginable and so shocking as to defy belief. Today when students commit in-school murders, they’re met not so much with shock and disbelief as they are with a sense of tragic resignation. The headlines are regional or even local rather than national because on a national scale, school shootings are no longer front page, above-the-fold news. It is as if the world has become comfortably numb to the idea that childhood is a time of danger as much as of innocence.

That sad fact makes Andrew Hinderaker’s Kingsville all the more forceful. Delving the troubled world of a high school reeling from a student shooting, Kingsville is heart-breaking in its veracity and its sensitivity. In its world premiere at Stage Left, Kingsville Kingsville - Stage Left Theatre is also  powerful indelving the related topic of bullying; the sort of relentless, dehumanizing abuse that can drive young people to the violence borne of utter despair. Or at least it is for the first half or so of the play.

For all its many merits, Kingsville loses much of its impact when its plot swerves away from its young protagonists and into the world of an adult who does something so far-fetched it’ll make your eyes roll in disbelief. We’re not going to give away the action here – that would be a major spoiler. Suffice to say, Hinderaker’s narrative ultimately sinks under the weight of its own preposterousness.  Until then, Kingsville is a richly compelling story as it mines the volatile, triple-threatening world of adolescence, machismo and guns. Moreover, director Vance Smith has a remarkable pair of young men in the two key roles that anchor the piece.
Andrew Raia plays Justin, a high schooler who has been the target of brutal locker room harassment. Nick DiLeonardi plays Justin’s best (perhaps only) friend Mike, a high school outcast who has found empowerment – and relief from all-consuming loneliness and self-loathing – by learning to shoot at a local teen center. Raia nails the rage, frustration and desperation of a young man for whose daily life is defined by humiliation and dread. It’s with stunning impact that Raia delivers a monologue describing the abuse – the details are excruciating, but it isn’t just the particulars that make the sene so harrowing. Raia taps into an anguish that’s almost unbearably raw and authentic. DiLeonardi’s Mike  seems – superficially at least – more laid back than the deeply wounded Justin, but he’s just as heart-breaking: A fundamentally decent kid driven to do something terrible simply because he doesn’t have the tools to cope with with all the badness around him.

The adults in Kingsville aren’t as effective, primarily because the characters feel more like representations of opposing points of view more than actual people. Wayne (John Arthur Lewis), reeling from the death of his son in a school shooting, advocates arming students so that they aren’t sitting ducks if a gunman opens fire on a classroom. Justin’s father James (John Ferrick) passionately opposes Wayne, a stance that has been an excuse for Justin’s tormentors to take their bullying to heinous levels of cruelty.

Hinderaker also has Audrey, a lecturer (Cat Dean) punctuate the piece, relaying the results of a startling and revealing study about contemporary attitudes about machismo. Audrey’s direct address, like that dubious plot development, detracts from Kingsville more than it adds to the production. The speeches are didactic, and while they offer some eye-opening information, they put a hitch in the storytelling. When the action stops so that Audrey can break in with academic commentary on kids and guns, the audience is bumped out of the story and into a virtual lecture hall.

What Kingsville does well is show how integrated the poisonous threads of macho man culture are within the tapestry of gun culture. They provide the basis of a fantastic, if ultimately unbelievable, story.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Kingsville - poster

Continue reading