Review: Rantoul and Die (American Blues Theater)

     
     

White-Trash angst in central Illinois…..a dark comedy

     
     

Francis Guinan and Kate Buddeke in American Blues Theater's 'Rantoul and Die'. Photo by Paul Marchese

  
American Blues Theater presents
   
Rantoul and Die
  
Written Mark Roberts
Directed by Erin Quigley
at Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater (map)
through May 22  | 
tickets: $32-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Surely few things are more artistically satisfying than watching Francis Guinan on stage in full-frontal, scene-stealing, emotional-meltdown mode. The man can make knocking over a chair resonate with the power of a Shakespearian soliloquy. Okay, maybe that’s a little hyperbolic. But not much. Guinan is one of Chicago’s MVP’s of the theatrosphere, and he’s in excellent form with American Blues Theater’s staging of Rantoul and Die. As is the rest of the stellar cast in playwright Mark Roberts’ profane study of white trash angst in the flatland middle of nowhere.

Kate Buddeke and Cheryl Graeff in American Blues Theater's 'Rantoul and Die' by Mark Roberts. Photo by Paul MarcheseAt roughly 110 miles south of Chicago and half an hour or so outside of Champaign, Rantoul is the flyover territory of flyover territory. In Roberts’ largely plotless, utterly tasteless and immensely entertaining dark comedy, the denizens of Rantoul are likewise the sort of folk who one tends to overlook if not outright avoid. These are a breed of loud, ignorant mouth-breathers to whom political correctness is a foreign concept. They refer to the developmentally disabled as "mongoloid retards." The closest they get to fine dining is stopping in at the local Dairy Queen instead of using the drive-thru.

But this group is also, in the four person ensemble directed by Erin Quigley, oddly likable. They may be at the bottom of society’s ladder but on that lowest of rungs, there is a singular integrity. These are people who say precisely what they think – the filters that most of us use to smooth out the rough edges of our uglier inclinations are absent in this group. There’s an honesty to their no-class brawling and profanity, perverse to be sure, but also unvarnished and unafraid. When Rallis, as pasty-faced a middle-age mope as you’ll ever encounter, fails in his attempt at suicide, his best friend Gary (Guinan) gives him a harsh dose of extreme tough love in lieu of sympathy:

“Suicide is like jerking off in a salad bar,” Gary berates, “There’s no regard for the people left behind.” From there, his get-a-grip lecture really gets profane.

The woefully depressed Rallis, it must be noted, is played by Alan Wilder. For those keeping track, that means that half the cast of Rantoul and Die is comprised of Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members. Wilder and Guinan have as long history, and their scenes together here have an ease, a depth and an effortless authenticity that only comes from years of working together. The women in the cast – Kate Buddeke as Rallis’ unhappy wife Debbie and Cheryl Graeff as Callie, Debbie’s manager down at the DQ – come from the storied ranks of the American Blues Theater. Together, the foursome is toxically effective.

Plenty happens in Roberts’ atmospheric tale, including a shooting that leaves one character brain dead (“Summabitch has deviled ham in his head”) about 40 minutes into the 90-minute piece. But plot isn’t the point here. Roberts’ peculiar, pungent brand of storytelling isn’t about a conventional arc so much as it is a portrait of a very particular demographic (although to be sure, each of the four characters are idiosyncratic individuals more than representatives of a type.)

     
Francis Guinan and Alan Wilder in American Blues Theater's 'Rantoul and Die' by Mark Roberts. Photo by Paul Marchese Francis Guinan and Kate Buddeke

The play works because the dialogue is so barbed-wire sharp and delivered with such deceptively effortless agility by Quigley’s ensemble. The filthy blue-collar rants of Debbie, Callie, Gary and Rallis are capsules of comedy as nasty and black as the black plague. Clearly, Rantoul is no place for those with a low tolerance for profanity, gruesomely violent imagery or extraordinarily vulgar sexual references.

As Rallis, Wilder is a quavering muddle of a whipped porch dog of a man, haplessly clinging to a wife who is beyond over him. As Rallis’ exasperated, long-out-of-love spouse, Buddeke is an evolving mixture of ruthlessness and regret. She also makes it clear that Debbie is a woman who is lonely and frustrated – and surprisingly vulnerable under all her toughness. Which brings us to Graeff, as the unnervingly cheerful Dairy Queen manager. She’s got a second act monologue that is both hair-raising in its horror-porn narrative and a sprightly testimony to the power of positive thinking and a sunny can-do attitude.

Given the lack of a plot and the jaw-dropping crudeness of the dialogue, you wouldn’t want Rantoul and Die to fall into the hands of amateurs. It takes a seasoned, top-tier group of artists to pull of something this tasteless with such brutal honesty. This production has that. One can only hope we see more of these ABT/Steppenwolf hybrids in the future.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Francis Guinan and Alan Wilder in American Blues Theater's 'Rantoul and Die' by Mark Roberts. Photo by Paul Marchese

 

All photos by Paul Marchese

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REVIEW: It’s a Wonderful Life: the Radio Play (ATC)

  
  

A Christmas window to an American past

  
  

Chrisopher McLinden, MaryWinn Heider - Its A Wonderful Life Radio Play - ATC Chicago

  
American Theater Company presents
  
It’s a Wonderful Life: the Radio Play
  
Adapted by Joe Landry
Directed by
Jason W. Gerace
at
American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (map)
through Dec 26  | 
tickets: $35-$40  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There is something warm and centering about American Theater Company’s perennial holiday offering, It’s a Wonderful Life: the Radio Play. Tom Burch’s scenic design, a variety of warm wood tones set with holiday greenery, grounds the production in its vision of a solid, comforting past. Likewise, Katherine Stebbins’ late 40’s period costumes render a satisfying illusion of our parents or grandparents in their heyday—the ladies’ perfect period hair and makeup set off with bold poinsettia corsages; the men in period suits and sweaters, sporting red and white carnation buttonholers. Just sitting in the cast’s presence can feel as reassuring as Dad’s hand on your shoulder or Mom asking how your day went.

Joseph Anthony Foronda and Alan Wilder - Its A Wonderful Life Radio Play - ATC ChicagoDirected by Jason W. Gerace, one can slip as easily into the performance as into an old pair of slippers and that might be part of the problem. ATC’s cast has a lot of comfort to give and their meticulous, professional execution of an American classic unquestionably impresses. However, the production also has the tendency to oversell its stabilizing comfort and forget the dramatic verve that drove Frank Capra’s original creation. Thankfully, there are some things here that are even better than Capra’s iconic movie: Christopher McLinden and Mary Winn Heider produce much stronger romantic chemistry between George Bailey and Mary Hatch than Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed did; somehow the confrontation scenes between George and Mr. Potter (Alan Wilder) more potently expose Potter’s amoral duplicity.

But for the most part, the cast could kick up the energy just a notch. Most take on multiple roles and sometimes character distinctiveness gets lost in the mishmash–Frank Capra’s direction excelled in making each character’s personality stand out uniquely. Of course, there are notable exceptions. Steppenwolf stalwart Alan Wilder practically channels the ghost of Lionel Barrymore with his dead-on imitation of Mr. Potter. Joseph Anthony Foronda backs up the production solidly with his portrayals of George’s father, Uncle Billy and Joseph.

But the production offers something more than just a nostalgic replay of Frank Capra’s iconic film; it offers a communal reminder of the way we were—and might still be—at the height of historic uncertainty over what America is or where we are going. The dialogue still delivers the best critique of capitalism in the American dramatic canon. As a humorous anachronistic touch, though, Chris Amos entertainingly plugs neighborhood businesses. Just as in the old days the advertising is interspersed throughout the story. Promoting businesses that sell vegan treats certainly brings us back to the present—it is, after all, about paying the bills.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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REVIEW: To Kill a Mockingbird (Steppenwolf Theatre)

 

Talented cast tells a timeless story

 

 

   
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
To Kill A Mockingbird
   
Dramatized by Christopher Sergel
Based on the novel by Harper Lee
Directed by
Hallie Gordon
at
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through November 14  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

In David Mamet’s “Three Uses of the Knife, his non-fiction book on the art of playwriting, he describes his detest for plays that set out to soapbox. In his view, works that preach a message selfishly leave the audience out of the discussion. For if the spectator isn’t given the opportunity to provide his own interpretation of the work, isn’t it propaganda and not art?

But David Mamet’s word isn’t scripture. And there’s no question that To Kill a Mockingbird has artistic merit, especially in its current staged incarnation produced by Steppenwolf for Young Adults.

Yes, the story is pretty straightforward and provides little moral conflict for today’s audiences. We know from the beginning we are supposed to side with the stately Samaritan Atticus Finch (Philip R. Smith), and root against the slackjawed, pitchfork-toting townsfolk. We know that Tom Robinson (Abu Ansari) is innocent beyond a reasonable doubt and that Scout (Caroline Heffernan) is going to be as feisty as she is precocious.

So ethical dilemmas and non-archetypical characters aren’t To Kill a Mockingbird’s strong points. But the piece stands as an important historical drama, a reminder that although we live in a nation where everyone is created equal, some are more equal than others.

Of equal importance is the fact that the play offers up some really outstanding roles for young actors. And Steppenwolf’s stellar cast does not disappoint. Heffernan brings to the role of Scout a Punky Brewster tomboy quality that is tough without sacrificing cuteness. Zachary Keller nails Dill’s Alabama droll. Claire Wellin (who I last saw in Profile Theatre’s amazing production of Killer Joe) delivers an emotionally charged performance as Mayella Ewell, the young woman alleging rape. She is certainly an actress to watch.

Director Hallie Gordon conveys the smallness of Maycomb, Ala. by relying on a compact set that stays stationary throughout the production. The Finch’s home is steps from the Radley’s, which is only steps from Mrs. Dubose’s. This helps intensify the rising action of the play, as we can better sense the proximity of the danger that threatens Atticus and his family.

If you want to introduce your children to drama, Steppenwolf’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a good start. Most seventh and eighth grade children have already read the book, so it’s safe to say the content is age appropriate for young teenagers. However, younger children may find the themes of murder and rape to be too adult.

For top-notch child talent and a timeless story, go see the Steppenwolf’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Performances run October 12 – November 14, 2010 in Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Street.  Weekday matinees (Tuesdays – Fridays at 10 am) are reserved for school groups only, with weekend (Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday) performances available to the public.

 

 

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REVIEW: A Separate Peace (Steppenwolf Theatre)

The drama begins when the summer ends

SeparatePeace-2

 

Steppenwolf For Young Adults presents:

A Separate Peace

 

by John Knowle
adapted by Nancy Gilsenan
directed by Jonathan Berry
through March 19th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Steppenwolf’s production of John Knowle‘s A Separate Peace, adapted by Nancy Gilsenan and directed by Jonathan Berry, becomes more engaging as its characters are exposed to the world outside the boundaries of their boarding school, particularly the looming threat of World War II. The opening scenes, effective in conveying the rambunctious energy of the boys during the summer, lack a strong conflict, but once the seasons change and adulthood inches closer, the show gains emotional resonance.

Roommates Gene (Jake Cohen) and Finny (Damir Konjicija) are holding onto the vestiges of their childhood, inventing ball games and jumping out of trees, and while Gene prepares for life beyond their boyish existence, Finny deludes himself with ideas of eternal youth. Konjicija’s energy nears obnoxious levels as he leaps around the stage cajoling his schoolmates into participating in his juvenile antics, but moment of vulnerability prevent Finny from grating on the nerves. The character’s denial of the war overseas reveals a young man afraid of his mortality beneath the charismatic, carefree exterior, but when tragic events prevent him from ever serving his country, his fear is replaced by a greater feeling of shame.

SeparatePeace-1

At the core of the play is Gene and Finny’s relationship, and while Gene is overshadowed by his roommate, both actors are equally captivating. The emotional depth that Cohen brings to his character prevents him from seeming malicious when camaraderie becomes jealousy, and there is genuine remorse for his actions in the later half of the play. The production is bookended by Gene’s monologues, and Cohen does an admirable job setting the tone of the production: a bittersweet journey through one man’s memories. 

Berry’s direction of the opening and closing sequences captures the free flowing imagery that constitutes the mind’s recollections, further emphasized by Chelsea Warren‘s set. An amalgamation of the primary locations of the play, it features an epic tree branch hanging over the boys’ dorm room, the branch’s presence both a reminder of youth and a foreboding harbinger of doom.

As Finny’s life is forever changed, so is classmate Leper’s (Will Allen), the bookish wallflower who enlists when he turns 18. When Leper escapes from basic training, the play explores the emotional and mental damage of military culture, demystifying the boys’ illusions about the service. Allen’s terror as Leper recognizes his deteriorating mental state is chilling, and gives the final image of the play, men in military uniform marching toward an uncertain fate, incredible strength.

Rating: ★★★

 

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REVIEW: Distracted (American Theatre Company)

‘Distracted’ isn’t worth your attention

 Fulks, Wilder - H II

American Theatre Company presents:

Distracted

by Lisa Loomer
directed by PJ Paparellil
through February 28th (more info)

review by Keith Ecker 

I’ve been told by medical professionals that I have both Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (AD/HD) and general anxiety disorder (GAD), which is the exact same dual diagnosis given to the little boy in the play Distracted.

Fulks - V III So you’d think that because I could identify with one of the play’s central figures, I’d probably be able to sympathize with its characters; maybe I’d be moved to think about the consequences of medicating children. Well, I can’t sympathize, and the only thing I was moved to do was leave the theater once the lights came up.

There’s a lot to be said about this American Theatre Company production. So much in fact that it’s hard to focus. But as my therapist reminds me, it’s best to break things down into smaller tasks.

Let’s start with something simple, like the space. It’s huge with an exposed concrete floor big enough to stage Xanadu. Of course, there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with a large space. It just requires a lot of energy to fill it. Unfortunately, there’s little energy in this play. The mother (Donna Jay Fulks), who tries to “fix” her son’s AD/HD, has the emotional depth of a woman in an Activia commercial. When she should be banging her head against the steel beam that was obstructing my view of stage left, she instead grits her teeth, rolls her eyes and half-asses a mantra to calm herself down.

On a positive note, the use of 16 flat-screen televisions was a novel effect. Not only do the screens serve as figurative distractions—representing cell phones, cable news and instant messaging—they also create digital scenery. A doctor’s office, for example, comes to life when the screens flicker with images of impressionist paintings and a fish tank.

Next, the acting. I’ll start with the positive on this one. The supporting cast, many of whom play multiple roles, steals the show. As the protagonist boringly drifts from one professional to another, teetering on helplessness and frustrated but never quite getting there, the supporting cast infuses real emotion and vibrancy into the piece. Audrey Morgan, who plays the teacher, a doctor and a nurse, and Dina Facklis, who plays the obsessive-compulsive neighbor Vera, have impeccable commitment and comedic chops. When they speak, the play comes to life.

Facklis, Fulks - V Unfortunately, most of the time the acting is dead on arrival. The mother and father (Kevin Rich) are an incredibly unconvincing couple, playing out the tension in the relationship with all the reality of a “very special episode” of a primetime sitcom. True, Fulks had a challenging part. The mother is the sun that the world of the play revolves around. But damn it, feel something! Maybe this is emblematic of Distracted’s suburbia setting, where people harbor a sort of overly reserved kind of existential anger at society that must be suppressed for fear of what the neighbors might think. But hey, we’re all human. And even a soccer mom is going to have a mental breakdown at some point. I’ve seen it happen, and it isn’t pretty. The best we get is a shoe-shopping spree and a small outburst where she confesses to the audience that she feels like her son is ruining her life.

The direction. PJ Paparelli, who is also the artistic director of ATC, makes Distracted move fast. A bedroom morphs into an office which morphs into a classroom. A teacher becomes a nurse, a doctor breaks out of character and everyone stops action to speak to the audience. The smash-cut scene changes work thanks to the coasters on all the set pieces. However, the character switches do not. Paparelli moves so fast that half the time the actors seem confused as to whom they are supposed to be, occasionally stumbling over their lines in an effort to catch up.

Finally, the writing. I’m amazed this play was first produced in 2007 because it feels like it was from the early 90s. I’m 28 years old. Childhood Ritalin prescriptions were commonplace, albeit controversial, when I was 8. This play treats the subject matter as untouched territory while failing to contribute anything to the decades-old dialogue. Worse still, the whole piece feels like a big lecture, a sort of morality play where the audience is talked down to the entire time. And because there aren’t really characters in this piece, just physical embodiments of different points of view, we never have the opportunity to care about anyone.

One last note: If you do find anything redeeming about this play, it will all be dashed by the miserable ending. Distracted just kind of peters out on an anticlimactic note, that note being a song by Eminem, a rapper no tweenage boy has listened to for nearly a decade. I don’t know if the use of Eminem was in the script or if it was a directorial move, but it reminded me of watching my mom try to prove how cool she still is by doing tequila shots.

A good supporting cast and some interesting stage elements can’t save this production. Sadly, the only thing you’ll be paying attention to while watching Distracted is your watch.

 

Rating: ★½

 

Rich, Fulks - H all photos by Christopher Plevin

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REVIEW: American Theatre’s “Its a Wonderful Life”

its-a-wonderful-life-foley

American Theatre Company presents:

It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play

Adapted from the film by Frank Capra
Screenplay written by
Goodrich, Hackett, Swerling and Capra
Based on a short story by
Philip Van Doren Stern
Directed by
Jason Gerace
Thru December 27th  (ticket info)

reviewed by Katy Walsh

microphone “Man’s suicide thwarted on Christmas Eve” sounds like a newspaper headline, not the premise of a holiday tradition. In American Theatre’s 8th-annual production, Frank Capra’s 1946 film, It’s a Wonderful Life, based on the book The Greatest Gift, is re-imagined on stage as a radio play. Though most have seen the movie, the story deals with a distraught businessman George Bailey who eventually considers killing himself so his family may benefit from a life insurance policy. Clarence, angel second class, tries to earn his wings by helping George understand significance of his life. Performed in 80 minutes without an intermission, American Theatre Company’s It’s a Wonderful Life: The Radio Play is a nicely wrapped holiday gift.

It could possibly be said that Wonderful Life is the original dramedy. The plot is Hollywood’s schmaltzy tragedy with a “feel good” happy ending. Within the story of a suicide attempt, the Capra team has created strong characters delivering memorable lines. “Why don’t you kiss her instead of talking her to death?”, “Youth is wasted on the wrong people.”, “No gin tonight, son!”, “Get me…I’m giving out wings.”, “Excuse me! Excuse me! I burped!”, “Every time a bell rings, an angel gets his wings,” and the ever powerful, “Strange, isn’t it? Each man’s life touches so many other lives. When he isn’t around he leaves an awful hole, doesn’t he?” The timeless lines invoke the familiar swirl of sentimental tears and chuckles.

Starting with this strong, beloved script, director Jason Gerace adds a cast of nine members to perform the Christmas classic. The stage is the broadcast room at radio station WATC. The radio announcer (Alex Goodrich) begins the show by prepping the studio audience with “on the air” protocols and the importance of the APPLAUSE sign lighting up. Alan Wilder, playing two key roles – Clarence and Mr. Potter, perfectly mimics the original performances of Henry Travers and Lionel Barrymore. As crotchety old Potter, Wilder mockingly delivers, “You see, if you shoot pool with some employee here, you can come and borrow money.”  Later, as Clarence, Wilder innocently requests, “Mulled wine, light on the cinnamon heavy on the cloves. Off with ya lad and be lively!”

Another player that provides dead-on imitations of multiple characters is Jessie Fisher. As man-eater Violet, Fisher seductively says, “What? This old thing? Why I only wear it when I don’t care how I look.” Then Fisher becomes 8 year old Zu-Zu with, “Not a smidge of temperature.” Although Kareem Bandealy is no Jimmy Stewart, his George Bailey gives a complex range of emotions of a dream seeker -small town hero- suicidal- “richest man in Bedford Falls.” Under the well-paced direction of Gerace, the multi-talented cast energetically lassoes the moon.

For a radio play performed as a stage play, the foley artist (the person who creates many of the natural, everyday sound effects for a live radio show) always adds an interesting element of sound production. With this show, this doesn’t seem to be occur. The foley artist (Rick Kubes) is set up on the side of the stage with various tools and techniques to add the sounds to the radio broadcast. Plunging in the river, clattering dishes, blizzard winds – these radio elements are not completely audibly realized. Kubes needs to crank up the volume! And speaking of audio, preshow, the audience is given an opportunity to write audiograms. During radio commercial breaks, the audiograms are delivered by the cast. Holiday greetings are mixed with requests for parking money as the messages are broadcasted to and from audience members. It’s a nice personal holiday touch and cheaper than buying cards.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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Review: Steppenwolf Theatre’s “Fake”

Strong performances fail to compensate for a less-than-compelling script

Photographer: Mark Campbell

Steppenwolf Theatre presents:

Fake

written and directed by Eric Simonson
thru November 8th (buy tickets)

reviewed by Richard Millward

Fake-09 Fake, Steppenwolf’s season opener, written and directed by ensemble member Eric Simonson, explores the well-known scientific hoax "Piltdown Man." Initially thought to be the "missing link" and a confirmation of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, suspicions about Piltdown’s authenticity cropped up almost immediately and continued to fester until, in 1953, with more modern dating techniques, Piltdown Man was conclusively proven to be a fake. The identity of the fossil’s forger has never been conclusively proven, although it is widely believed to be Charles Dawson, Piltdown Man’s "discoverer."

Simonson juxtaposes two stories, one set in the years following the fossil’s discovery, and a second at the time the hoax is confirmed. Both are fiction, although the earlier story does involve historical personages Dawson, Charles Woodward, director of the prestigious British Museum, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a Jesuit archaeologist of some note, and author and amateur scientist Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

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Fake-08 Fake-12

Unfortunately, neither story is terribly compelling, alone or in concert with its twin, despite the larger-than-life presence of Doyle. The more modern tale, involving a romantic triangle between the elder Oxford anthropologist charged with ascertaining the fossil’s true age, a female Lithuanian former student half his age who’s also his fiancé, and a young, go-getter specialist from UCLA, is certainly the weaker of the two – as certain as we are of the outcome of their testing of the Piltdown skull, there’s even less mystery how this ill-fated love story will play out.

Some of the Steppenwolf ensemble’s better acting talent is at work here, including Francis Guinan as Doyle and the jilted Oxford don, and Kate Arrington, as a Nellie Bly-type "lady reporter" who uncovers Piltdown Man’s creator and the young Lithuanian. The production’s design, by Todd Rosenthal (scenery), Karin Kopischke (costumes) and Joe Appelt (lighting) is both evocative and pointed.

But in the end, it’s the play itself that disappoints. Simonson’s theme of how and why we come to know what we call "the truth," and what role faith plays in arriving at it, is not uninteresting. But the uneven tone and murky philosophizing of Fake render an interesting idea into a somewhat less than satisfying evening in the theater.

Rating: ««½

Photographer: Mark Campbell Photographer: Mark Campbell 

Photographer: Mark Campbell

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