Review: Before and After (Theatre Momentum)

     
     

Too many actors in the kitchen muddle interesting concept

     
     

'Before and After' at the Apollo Theater, presented by Theatre Momentum

  
Theatre Momentum presents
  
Before and After
  
Directed by Tony Rielage
at the Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 7  |  tickets: $8-$10  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

In Chicago, improv is as synonymous with comedy as the Cubs are with losing. However, there is nothing about improvisational performance that inherently means humor. Most any acting school uses improv as experimentation in training to create performances that are urgent and honest. Theatre Momentum is an exciting theatre company poised to illuminate this fact with their mission of creating narrative based improv. Within the basement space at the Apollo Theater, director Tony Rielage and his company of improvisers have taken upon a notable artistic endeavor with their new production, Before and After. In the end, unfortunately it proves too overwhelming to succeed. While they 'Before and After' at the Apollo Theater, presented by Theatre Momentummay continue to evolve the structure, presently it exists in a state that is fairly entertaining in its high points, yet despite talented performers, falls flat more often than not during this extraneously long show.

The conceit of director Tony Rielage and his troop is to create a fresh narrative each performance, through improvisation, that follows a single character in the midst of a life-changing event, played by two actors in two different stages of the character’s life. The rest of the cast fill in the supporting roles. The performance I attended revolved around a Mark Zuckerberg type character that created a lucrative website encapsulating every internet obsession: web videos, online dating and the sale of ironic Jesus t-shirts. Derek Van Barham and Adam Ziemkiewicz played the central character in different moments of his life. Van Barham was exceptionally sharp as the younger version of the character in his cold manipulative discovery of how the internet can give him power. While Ziemkiewicz added heart to the story, the details of the events surrounding his version of the character were muddy. The life changing event was apparently the marriage of his lifelong love (played by Julie Chereson grounded with charming truthfulness).

As the format exists currently, 90 minutes seemed to cause the group to have to stretch for time and devise improvised scenes that were meaningless and bordering on incoherence. Also, the need to include each of the dozen cast members throughout the show takes too much focus away from the central relationship to carry any gravity. Nevertheless, there were a few impressive moments where these intelligent actors developed some heartfelt relationships, such as Van Barham and Peter Athans in a scene in which a son interviews his divorced father for a dating video to be posted online. Theresa Ohanian brings life and vitality to every scenario she is involved in, proving to have the sharpest wit and most guts in this cast. Athans is also a standout bringing the most truth, empathy and maturity to the stage. All the while, these strong actors come across as wasted talent in the daunting task to create a meaningful piece of theatre with few structural setups to guide their journey.

'Before and After' at the Apollo Theater, presented by Theatre MomentumAs time goes on, this cast may find ways to tighten up their stories and create higher stakes in scenes. While it may go against their mission, I hope that this company may take moments that work well and carry it over to following performances to build upon. I would love to see this very same cast and director tackle a slightly more developed production still utilizing their improvisational skills. If there were a solidified structure for these actors to play in, I feel that it would result in even more creativity. What we get now is far too large a canvas, too many paints and too many artists to give the audience a finished product that can be appreciated in its totality.

Still, Before and After may prove to be an interesting and worthwhile outing for hardcore fans or practitioners of improvisational performance. It certainly offers something different than the likes of iO and The Annoyance. While focused on dramatic narrative, there are still a handful of laughs and sketch moments. Nevertheless, as a piece of theatre it doesn’t quite hold up. It especially doesn’t hold up for a full 90 minutes. It’s a delicate balance between keeping the performances fresh and improvised, while also achieving a consistently coherent narrative within the structure Rielage has devised. The format may benefit from either adding a more preconceived plot to their plays, or condensing the action and losing a few cast members. Theatre Momentum has yet to figure out the correct formula, but they are worth keeping a close eye on.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

'Before and After' at the Apollo Theater, presented by Theatre Momentum

Before and After is a 90-minute long performance at the Apollo Theater Studio, 2540 North Lincoln Avenue, and runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 PM through May 7, 2011. Tickets are $10 Fridays and Saturdays, and $8 Thursdays. Reservations may be made through the Apollo Theater box office at (773) 935-6100 and at www.ticketmaster.com.

  

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REVIEW: Gorilla Tango’s “Mark & Laura’s Couples Advice Christmas Special”

Lack of Plot Leaves Characters Adrift

 

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Gorilla Tango presents:

Mark & Laura’s Couples Advice Christmas Special

Review by Keith Ecker

There are countless Christmas offerings this holiday season. You have the evergreen classics such as Miracle on 34th Street (our review) and A Christmas Carol (there are actually seven separate productions of the latter). You have plays targeted toward both children and the inner-child, such as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (review). Then there’s the fringe fare—over-the-top shows that lampoon those things we hold most sacred about the Christmas season from family to Jesus to televised holiday spectaculars.

Mark & Laura’s Couples Advice Christmas Special (ticket info) falls into the latter category. It’s a bare-boned production that can barely be called a play due to its lack of any semblance of a plot. It’s definitely a comedy, though the funniest part of the show is the program, which provides humorous biographic information on the main characters. Yet, the play fails to incorporate this humor and, rather, flounders along on a series of contrived and well-worn comedy conventions.

The play centers on the Gibsons, a family who produces a cable access, relationship advice program. The fourth wall is non-existent as we, the audience, are the in-studio audience for their fictional broadcast, which airs in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Mother and father duo Laura (Carrie Bain) and Mark (Ryan McChesney) play the hosts who ooze Midwestern wholesomeness, including Laura’s love for soup and Mark’s passion for toolsets. Their production assistant is their son Sean (Adam Ziemkiewicz), a flamboyant thespian who elicits only derision from his father. The couple’s other son, Mark Jr. (Raymond Bruce Birkett III), is the apple of his father’s eye due to his love of ties and his 3.2 GPA.

Throughout the show, the couple espouses relationship advice, at one point fielding questions from the audience. Yet, it is obvious that hypocrisy is afoot as there are dysfunctions between the Gibsons, both as partners and as a family unit.

We’ve seen all these characters and relationships before in one form or another: the ostracized gay son, the know-it-all dad and the worrisome mother who just wants everyone to get along for the holidays. And although all actors do a good job of making these stock characters come to life, there is no reason for the audience to become invested in them in any way. That’s because there is really no plot, but only what appears to be a skeleton of a script with a few marks the actors agree to hit. There is little tension, despite such melodramatic conflict. There is resolution, but no feeling of relief. We cannot care about four people meandering on stage, directionless.

If there was more time and thought put into creating an inventive story wherein to place the Gibsons, this could have been an entertaining and refreshing addition to seasonal theater. However, as it stands, it’s really just a good way to enjoy an hour of central heating, courtesy of the Gorilla Tango Theater.

Rating:

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