Review: The Alchemist (Nothing Special Productions)

     
     

17th-century farce delivers rich hoaxes, prosperous laughs

     
     

A scene from Nothing Special Production's 'The Alchemist', written by Ben Johnson and directed by Gregory Peters. Photo credit: Michael Laird

  
Nothing Special Productions presents
  
The Alchemist
  
Written by Ben Johnson
Adapted by Gregory Peters
Directed by Jack Dugan Carpenter
at Heartland Studio
, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through April 30  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

Love? Riches? Fairytalk?  Whatever you’re in the market for, the alchemist is selling it for cash or velvet.  Nothing Special Productions presents The Alchemist.  A trio of swindlers conjure up dreamy elixirs for the villagers in need.  The scams are housed in a deserted mansion.  Dazzling promises lure the customers into the illusion. The people are foolish. The hoaxes are elaborate.  The payoff is pure gold.  The Alchemist guarantees riches and delivers it as prosperous laughs!

A scene from Nothing Special Production's 'The Alchemist', written by Ben Johnson and directed by Gregory Peters. Photo credit: Michael LairdLike an ongoing ‘Saturday Night Live’ sketch, the buffoonery is riotous.  Jack Dugan Carpenter directs the huge cast through the mazed intrigue.  Carpenter paces the mega set-ups with a zippy revolving door feel.  At the core of the mayhem, the household rogues (Andrew Marchetti, Sean McGill, Melissa Imbogno) don numerous disguises and personas to work their magic.  It’s a burlesques-style slapstick! Continuous almost-being-found-out moments add to the hilarity.  In one scene, the threesome act out a fascinating elfin attack.  Their giggly enjoyment of the charade makes it feel improvised.  Marchetti and McGill are a dynamic duo.  Their synergy is perfected comedic timing. The talented ensemble add to the punch line with exaggerated spoofs.  In particular, two supporting actors stand out in stealing ways.  Matt Castellvi pontificates in grandiosity. His Laurence Olivier-like theatrics are hysterical.  A lanky Ken Miller escalates the joke with uttering one word, ‘sis-star.‘                      

Playwright Gregory Peters has updated Ben Johnson’s farce from the 1600’s.  Peters keeps the formal prose but weaves in a modern twist to the multiple entanglements.  By intermission, the number of grifts in progress is exhausting.  Not because the audience isn’t entertained but because they know ALL the scams must resolve before the show can end.  To adapt a play for the 21st first century, you need to adapt to an audience with a tweet-size attention span.  By limiting characters and eliminating scenes, this long con could be an excellent hustle!

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

A scene from Nothing Special Production's 'The Alchemist', written by Ben Johnson and directed by Gregory Peters. Photo credit: Michael Laird

The Alchemist continues through April 30th at the Boho Theatre in Rogers Park, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and, Saturdays at 8pm. Tickets are $15, and can be purchased online. The show’s running time is two hours and forty minutes, which includes an intermission.


Cast

Sean McGill (Face); Andrew Marchetti (Subtle); Melissa Imbrogno (Doll); Tony Kaehny (Dapper/Officer); Scott Sawa (Drugger); Chad Brown (Ananias); Matt Castellvi Mammon); Conor Burke (Surly); Patrick Byrnes (Tribulation); Ken Miller (Kastril); KaCee J. Hudson (Pliant); Joshua Razavi (Lovewit)

All photo by Michael Laird

  
  

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: The Wreck of the Medusa (The Plagiarists)

Cannibal Fare for Cannibal Times

 
The Plagiarists present:
 
The Wreck of the Medusa
 
created by Ian Miller and Gregory Peters
directed by
Jack Tamburrie
at
Angel Island Theatre, 731 W. Sheridan (map)
through May 9th | tickets: $15-$20 | more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

There are plays that you admire; since their productions are also admirable, you recommend them. There are plays that you carry with you long after you leave the theater; these you recommend highly. Then, there are plays that you wish would Plagiarists_Medusa_04052010_DSC_0534 spread like wildfire around the world and this play is one of them. The Wreck of the Medusa, created by Ian Miller and Gregory Peters, is now enjoying its world-premiere at Angel Island Theatre (home of Mary-Arrchie Theatre). The Plagiarists, who produce only original works, have been workshopping the play for at least two years, unveiling its fledgling prototype in the DCA Incubator Series in January 2009.

Such meticulous care in development was more than worth the effort. Based on the worst maritime disaster of the 19th-century, The Wreck of the Medusa relies upon multiple narratives, medias and styles to relay the horror of the event and its attempted cover-up by the French government. But the play also challenges the notion of ever really knowing what its survivors went through, especially through the vehicle of art. It’s a decidedly self-conscious play that never becomes precious about its ability to tell the truth. Rather, it generates layer upon layer of ambiguous meaning, made manifest through the disparities that crop up in narrative and perception.

In 1816, the French Naval Minister Dubouchage (Marsha Harman), under the Bourbon monarch Louis XVIII (Kasia Januszewski), appointed Viscount Hugues Duroy de Chaumareys (Andrew Marchetti) as captain of the frigate Medusa. His mission, with three other ships, was to deliver Colonel Julien-Desire Schmaltz (Christopher Marcum) as the new governor of Senegal in a peaceful handover of the colony from the British to the French. The crown chose Chaumareys based on his pedigree and Royalist loyalties—quite understandable, since Napoleon’s 100 days had embroiled France the summer before. However, they completely overlooked Chaumareys’ extreme lack of naval experience and personal knack for gross incompetence.

What was supposed to be a standard voyage turned into mind-numbing disaster. On July 2, the Medusa ran aground off the coast of Senegal. 150 passengers were abandoned on a cobbled-together raft while the captain, the governor and high-ranking officers made it to shore in two days in lifeboats. Stranded without sails, navigational equipment, or decent provisions, the passengers quickly turned on each other, to the point of murder and cannibalism. After 12 days at sea, only 15 survived from the original 150 and 5 of those died soon after rescue by the Argus, a companion ship they’d lost sight of before the wreck.

Plagiarists_Wreck Promos_02272010_0055_fade[1] The disaster resulted in absolute scandal for the newly established Bourbon monarchy. Especially when, against all government efforts to discredit them, two survivors, ship’s surgeon J.B. Henry de Sevigny (Kevin V. Smith) and geographical engineer Alexander Correard (Greg Hess) collaborated on a tell-all book about the shipwreck that spread like wildfire across Europe.

Peters and Miller’s genius employs many different points of view leading up to the abandonment of the passengers on the raft, then intricately explores the wreck’s political and cultural aftermath once its survivors have been rescued.  But the horror of the raft itself they leave to the dark pit of the imagination. Indeed, all narratives surrounding those fatal twelve days, as well as all attempts by artists to graphically depict it, seem more like the human mind struggling to comprehend unimaginably dangerous depths within the human psyche.

But for ignorant Americans, like myself, who know nothing about the Bourbon Restoration, this is fine storytelling theater–the narratives themselves contain full acknowledgement of their frailties and incompleteness. Furthermore, the absurdity of the storytelling becomes heightened by the exuberantly melodramatic rendition of the wreck that bookend the play’s straightforward sections. Here, the dark, macabre tale of The Wreck of the Medusa receives some Monty Python treatment. I have no idea whether Peters and Miller are quoting directly from W. T. Moncrieff’s The Fatal Raft, but these scenes certainly do read like a 19th-century melodrama “based on true events!” While the cast is brilliantly even and superlative in their multiple roles, Steve Wilson’s versatility stands out both as Jack Gallant, the plucky British sailor with the ridiculously pregnant pause, and as the disturbingly creepy Richefort, a stranger to whom Captain de Chaumareys inexplicably gives over command of the ship.

Other roles also stand out. Christopher Marcum’s insidiously evil Governor Schmaltz looks like the Bourbon version of the Bush/Cheney administration. His aide Griffon Du Bellay (Griffin Sharps) creates with him the perfect match made in hell. Kevin Smith so convincingly portrays the psychology of the ship’s doctor, one fears for the actor’s own sanity. Sevigny’s ratiocinated dissection of events and their effects on the minds of the survivors, including his own, cannot spare him the hallucinatory horrors of PTSD. Marsha Harmon conveys a kind of androgynous polish in her roles as Dubouchage and as the Herald for the Lord of the Tropic (Kasia Januszewski). Through it all, even on trial, Marchetti’s Chaumareys remains perfectly proper, slightly aloof, and totally clueless.

Plagiarists_Medusa_04052010_DSC_0509 Plagiarists_Medusa_04052010_DSC_0521

Greg Hess’s engineer, Correard, comes across as the play’s one regular guy. But even his ambiguities over our capacity to relay what really happened get teased out through his partnership with Theodore Gericault (James Dunn), the artist willing go to extremes to paint the truth about the raft. Gericault’s work hangs in the Louvre, now regarded as a seminal work for the Romantic Movement in painting. Several characters explore its meaning during the play. Their responses are generally ours, to any catastrophic event we get to see up close and in person.

Surely, the story of the wreck of the Medusa isn’t worse than the economic and war-as-foreign-policy wrecks into which we have so blithely and incompetently sailed. This Plagiarists production reflects our own country’s monstrous wreck—told in miniature, told in fragments, told in horror, told in farce. Perfect for a broken world, perfect for a world we have pushed to the breaking point.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Plagiarists_Medusa_04052010_DSC_0509

Review: Hobo Junction’s “Horrible”

 

“Horrible” Haunted by Shoddy Script

 

Hobo Junction presents:

Horrible

by Josh Zagoren
directed by Breahan Eve Pautsch
thru December 19th (tickets: 773-935-6100)

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Terrible-poster Either the criteria of what constitutes a dark comedy expanded and no one bothered to tell us, or Hobo Junction Productions is misinformed. The theater company’s recent aptly named piece Horrible is being touted as a macabre comedy, but really the scariest element of the production is the script (written by ensemble member Josh Zagoren), which has more holes in it than a victim of an icepick attack.

This isn’t to say the play lacks ghoulish elements. It features quaint depictions of cannibalism, ghostly hauntings and murder. But it lacks the two most critical elements of a dark comedy: cynicism and comedy. In fact, by the end of the play, you will feel as if you just watched an adaptation of a Hallmark card illustrated by Edward Gorey. Sure it might elicit a chuckle, but really it’s just trite, hokey material that scratches the shallowest surface of the human condition.

The play focuses on two families, the Garrishes and the Goodlys, both of whom begin with a dead parent and a dying parent. Malcolm Garrish (Mike Tepeli) is a workaholic doctor. His transvestite brother (Kaelan Strouse) is his assistant, and both are haunted by their father (Elliott Fredland) who is awaiting the death of the Garrish matriarch (Judi Schindler).

Meanwhile, on the other side of town—or the stage rather—lives Holly Goodly (Madeline Chilese), a poor young woman who does anything she can to support herself and her blind sister (Cyra K. Polizzi), even if that means feasting on human flesh to ward off starvation. The Goodly sisters are haunted by their mother (Tara Generalovich) who is awaiting the death of her drunkard husband (Bob Pries).

 

Horrible-Madeline-Chilese horrible-Mike-Tepeli

Soon into the play, the sickly elders from both families kick the bucket, and the lifelines of Malcolm and Holly collide at the town cemetery. Of course, they immediately fall for each other and a courtship begins. Meanwhile, their respective parents, having nothing better to do, pester them about their love lives from beyond the grave. As Malcolm and Holly carry on, the question of how she will hide her horrible secret looms.

There is also a narrator (Keith Redmond), onstage musical accompanists and news of a serial killer about town, a plot point that not only makes the production an overstuffed mess, but also derails the play into eye-rolling territory by the end.

Simply put, the biggest weakness of this play is its script. The story feels very much like a first draft and can benefit greatly from some additional table reads and multiple rewrites. For example, superfluous characters abound, such as Holly’s blind sister and Malcolm’s transvestite brother, who served no real purpose and received minimal characterization. (Blindness and transvestitism is about as deep as it gets.)

Characterization was also nonexistent for the protagonists. Malcolm and Holly’s love feels contrived and cliché, something we’ve seen countless times before in any teenage romantic comedy. There is also no effort to make either multi-dimensional. One’s a workaholic and one’s a cannibal, but there really isn’t a whole lot else to go on. The parental ghosts add a little comic fancy, but they could have been a riot if they weren’t written as North Shore cardboard cutouts.

Horrible-Mike-Tepeli-Madaline-Chilese The jokes are reminiscent of a bad Henny Youngman routine, with one-liners and puns comprising the majority of what is supposed to be the comedy. Whereas the dialogue could inform character or plot, it just sits there as a cheap laugh that stops the action of the play. There should have been more focus on building comedic situations, but then again that would have required creating well-rounded characters to create situations around.

There are some nice things to say about Horrible. For one, the musical accompaniment (composed by company member Dan Pearce), is entertaining and does more to set the tone than any part of the actual play. With only a guitar and a baritone sax, the two musicians create gritty tunes, evoking the spirit of Tom Waits. In addition, Strouse as the transvestite brother stole many scenes, not because he was donning a dress, but because his inflection and facial expressions breathed much life into an otherwise figuratively dead character.

At best, Horrible is a half-baked play that was prematurely produced before the writer could fix the script’s shortcomings. At its worst, it’s a frightening example of a directionless piece whose banality will haunt you.

Rating: ★½

 

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