REVIEW: Escape from the Haltsburg Boys Choir (Ruckus)

     
     

To get out, you’ll need to use ‘em…or lose ‘em

     
     

Escape from the Haltsburg Boys Choir - Ruckus Theatre. Photo by Lucas Gerald

   
The Ruckus Theater presents
   
Escape from the Haltsburg Boys Choir
   
Book/Lyrics by Aaron Dean
Music/Lyrics by
Jason Rico
Directed by
Daniel Caffrey
at
Side Project Theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through Jan 30  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

The Emperor requests a performance by the up and coming boys choir. The royal attention spearheads strategies to keep the vocal stylings intact. What wouldn’t a choirmaster do to cash in on his established prepubescent harmonies? (Imagine Michael Jackson’s dad in 18th century Austria.) The Ruckus presents the world-premiere musical Escape from the Haltsburg Boys Choir. Originally conceived as a fable based on the Vienna Boys Choir, The Ruckus moved the setting to the fictional town of Haltsburg after a cease-and-desist letter from the VBC. The story centers around the questionable recruitment and retention practices of a boys choir. Back in the day, star performers would retain their position by being castrated. To maintain the higher cherubic quality, it was off with his balls. Motivated by the threat of castration, four boys skip choir practice to flee captivity. Escape from the Haltsburg Boys Choir promotes the tagline ‘to get out, you’ll need to use ‘em…or lose ‘em.’

Jeffrey Fauver as choir director in 'Escape from the Haltsburg Boys Choir' - Ruckus Theater. Photo by Lucas GeraldThe Ruckus is staging its world-premiere musical at Side Project Theatre.  It’s a 35 seat theatre with a 13 member cast plus a 4-piece band off-stage. The ambitious undertaking is ballsy! Playwright Aaron Dean has written a fable that chronicles the fugitives’ interactions with a witch, a dragon, a talking rock and a dancing penis. In a small venue, it’s a lot to take in. The Medieval choir torture is an intriguing horrific tale in itself. The puppet pageantry and ancillary characters could be snipped to focus on the real action, though the superfluous pieces do add fantasy elements. But instead of an orgy for the senses, it’s gets clunky, confusing and ultimately unsatisfying – a pleasurable experience is all about one solid thing probed deeper (pun intended?).

Under the direction of Daniel Caffrey, the cast works energetically to escape disaster. The quartet of runaways crawl, croon and create an exit plan. Kate Black (Johanne) leads the singers with an enthusiastic chipper. Alyse Kittner (Nils) brings the sass as a rambunctious sidekick. Liz Goodson (Arthur) anchors the foursome as the stalwart quiet one. Heather Moats (Sebastian) endears as the timid lost boy. Megan Gotz (Victors) connives as the jealous wannabe soloist. These gals don’t need balls to hit the right melody. With the talented he-shes and a tighter script, Escape from the Haltsburg Boys Choir will take flight. Snip-snip! “It’s easy as A-B-C, 1-2-3…”

  
   
Rating:
   
   

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes with a fifteen minute intermission

One of the choirboys in 'Escape from the Haltsburg Boys Choir' at Ruckus Theater. Timo Aker as choir director in 'Escape from the Haltsburg Boys Choir' - Ruckus Theater. Photo by Lucas Gerald

Production photography by Lucas Gerald.

 

 

  
 

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REVIEW: The Gay American (The Ruckus)

Sexual fear and loathing in American politics

  TheGayAmerican_Production09

  
The Ruckus presents
 
The Gay American
  
by Kristian O’Hare
directed by
Allison Shoemaker
at
the side project, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through May 26  tickets: $10  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Washington D.C. is the perfect place for a gay sex scandal. The nexus of American political power, the district is already so rife with desperation, loneliness, self-loathing, overweening hypocrisy and insidious self-compromise that the closeted  queers fit right in. Hand in glove. It’s both here, and in the benighted environs of New Jersey, that Kristian O’Hare’s dark, freewheeling satire The Gay American takes its stand. Director Allison Shoemaker has pulled together a sharp and seductive cast, luring us with laser-like sarcasm and poignant reflection into TheGayAmerican_Production11the small studio space at the side project theatre space in Rogers Park, where The Ruckus has set up shop for this world premiere.

Their production will sell out every night, if there is any justice in this world. The Gay American is top-drawer, savage American comedy. Its script is an outrageous, non-stop interrogation of the value of gay identity politics at its intersection with its closeted presence on the national political scene. Coming out, while a cornerstone in the valorous struggle for sexual identity equality, yellows sickly with corruption, duplicity, and solipsism in the hands of a politico as sleazy and self-promoting as Jim McGreevey (Neal Starbird).

Scene: our nation’s capitol. Gay pages suck up to powerful Washington players in the pursuit of a political career wherein they get to be the top. A closeted power player and vociferous foe of sexual predators, Mark Foley (Walter Brody) keeps a stable of young pages that he can text suggestive comments to back and forth during their term in the page program. After page graduation, once the boys are legal enough, he meets up with them for sex at the hotel room that is “the second most favorite address in D.C.” New Jersey Governor McGreevey, an up-and-coming presidential hopeful, siphons off a Page (Aaron Dean) to serve as his personal aide, whether for his own personal service, or to service him and his wife Dina (Julie Cowden) during one of their “Friday Night Specials”–starting with drinks and jalapeno poppers at no less a place than TGIF Fridays.

All the above is true and established fact. In some respects, O’Hare’s wild and absurd script has written itself and there is no way that he can top the inanity that passes for political reality in America. But the real charm lies in his capacity to craft 3-dimensional comic characters; allowing them softer, sadder, even more poetic moments, while never letting up on the cynical, mercurial rationales by which they sell themselves and each other out. The rest of the charm relies on the crisp and exacting pace with which this show is executed. If there’s an award for lightening fast scene changes in a mercilessly cramped space, this cast and crew have earned it.

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Beyond scene changes, what a joy to witness a complex and sophisticated script fleshed out by such a brilliantly comic cast. Starbird’s Jim McGreevey looks like he has sprung, fully formed, from the New Jersey muck. His office—his real office—is a bathroom stall, for which he explains his preference on two separate occasions: “I love the bathroom stall. It reminds me of my Catholic upbringing,” and “Remember Clark Kent and Superman? That’s the way I feel about bathroom stalls. I enter it Irish Catholic, middle class, married, a normal guy . . . and after a nameless fuck, I leave it feeling like Superman.” For his part, Walter Brody looks so much like Mark Foley he had me doing double takes all evening long. He also captures the fluid ease with which a true Washington player makes the switch from rank exploiter to pillar of morality in 2.8 seconds.

Joshua Davis renders a deliciously tender and corruptible Golan Cipal. He’s the lover that McGreevey continually mistakes for Mexican and, in a 9/11 environment, promotes to homeland security advisor at a six-figure salary–even though Cipal is still an Israeli citizen. O’Hare is ready to play the romance card regarding Cipal’s involvement with McGreevey and Davis digs deep into the role’s contradictions,  evolving Golan’s progress from warm, poetic naïveté to gullible and overwhelmed self-compromise for one’s lover to immersion in self-loathing rage from a lover scorned.

TheGayAmerican_Production14But his rage cannot match the post-partum blackness in the soul of Dina McGreevey (Julie Cowden). I might have wished that O’Hare could have played up the sleaze factor a little more for this character. Certainly the real Dina Matos McGreevey deserves it. O’Hare relies just a little too much on “poor, betrayed woman” tropes for his Dina. Only once does he have her acknowledge her own complicity in her lavender marriage. Plus, a little research reveals that those “Friday Night Specials” were going on well before marriage. Nevertheless, Cowden’s performance is immaculate in its searing emotional truth. Her boozy, pill-popping chats with Jersey gal pal Patty (Elise Mayfield) become especially memorable, particularly when Patty morphs into Constance Wilde. Now that’s a side to Constance that Oscar may never have seen.

Aaron Dean and Freddie Donovan play a perfect pair of congressional pages—perfect bookends portraying the young gay have and have-nots in Washington’s political game playing. Stevie Chaddock gives us a sympathetic and vulnerable Morag–ignored by her parents as they enjoy the “cup quality” of their coffee, lost in the brave new world of cyber-dating, hoping to gain something from exploiting herself before others exploit her. I might have wished for more empowerment for Morag, Page, and Philly Buster but that will never come to pass in this world. No, in this dark, gay tale of Washington sexual shenanigans everyone loses, especially when they think they are winning.

    
     
Rating: ★★★½
    
    

 

 

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