REVIEW: Aftermath (Signal Ensemble Theatre)

  
  

The battle for the soul of Rock ‘n’ Roll

  
  

(left to right) George (Andrew Yearick) introduces Brian (Aaron Snook) to the sitar, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath,” written and directed by co-artistic director Ronan Marra.  Photo by Johnny Knight.

  
Signal Ensemble Theatre presents
  
Aftermath
  
Written/Directed by Ronan Marra
at
Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice (map)
through Jan 23  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Coming late to the Aftermath party, I wanted to see how well the production has held up since switching to Signal Ensemble’s own theater space. Extremely well, it would seem, from the sold-out crowds. Chicagoans are undeniably enjoying playwright and director Ronan Marra’s musical bio and tribute to Brian Jones, the eclectic 60s rock genius and tragic founder of The Rolling Stones.

Mick (Nick Vidal) sings while Brian (Aaron Snook) plays the sitar, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath,” written and directed by co-artistic director Ronan Marra. Photo by Johnny KnightClearly, critical kibitzing may mean nothing, now that Signal’s production has rolled along just fine, both reawakening Boomer nostalgia and exposing a younger generation to the Stones with a laudable facsimile of the original band’s performances. In fact, Marra’s requirement for musical proficiency in his cast stands at the throbbing heart of Signal’s production. Much as Aaron Snook charismatically captivates the audience, intrepidly holding attention under a fabulous mop top of blonde hair, he also pulls his weight hinting at Brian’s natural facility with multiple instruments by playing dulcimer, sitar and electric guitar. The music is the thing. The band’s excellence is the show’s mainstay. Once Mark J. Hurni’s dramatic lighting comes up on “Paint it, Black,” you know that this train is stopping for no one.

Except for one small, perceivable flaw—as Mick Jagger, Nick Vidal’s voice achieves a suitably approximate timbre but is almost drowned out by the force of the band. At least at my Sunday matinee viewing, seated in the front row, most song lyrics were indiscernible. Only during “Lady Jane” does Vidal hold his own, volume-wise. That’s too bad, especially since every other aspect of Vidal’s portrayal is electrifying. He has captured Mick’s strut, the liquid energy that made Jagger a consummate showman and indisputable sex idol. When acting, Vidal has Jagger’s snarky insouciance down pat, but behind the mic his voice pales. Joseph Stearns also doesn’t make for a thoroughly realistic Keith Richards—but the pressure isn’t on him as it is Vidal. He’s not the front man.

Dramatically, Marra’s writing also is lacking. His jukebox musical has an excellent sense of structure, with each number placed to move the action and characters forward; the boilerplate dialogue and predictable storytelling, however, may as well have come from MTV’s “Behind the Music.” Marra wants a balanced reflection on Brian Jones’ life and forgotten contributions to the Rolling Stones’ aesthetic. Yet, he simply hasn’t taken risks to plumb the depths of his troubled but fascinating rock idol. Instead, the audience is lead through a pageant of Brian’s struggles—his battles with Mick for artistic leadership of the Stones, his musical giftedness, his affair with model Anita Pallenberg (Simone Roos) and his downward spiral into paranoia and drug dependency.

     
(left to right) Brian (Aaron Snook) and Mick (Nick Vidal) perform a song, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath”. Photo by Johnny Knight (left to right) Bill (Nathan Drackett) and Charlie (Bries Vannon) laugh at the rest of the band during an interview, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath”.

In Snook, the show has an actor whose performance gives more ballast to Marra’s two-dimensional writing, but even he cannot redeem the material from its well-worn clichés. Once Brian suspects Anita in an affair with Keith, he and Roos together carry out especially visceral performances, but most of the rest of the action is a predictable dance of rock star dissolution that skirts the edges of both Jones’ genius and his darker side. We leave knowing no more about what made Brian Jones tick than before.

Plus, for hardcore rock aficionados, Marra’s work is just as much an act of forgetting as it is a loving tribute to the fallen Rolling Stone. Significant figures in Brian Jones’ life get tossed wholesale from Aftermath’s storyline. Instrumental to Jones’ ouster from the band was the arrival of Andrew Loog Oldham, who eventually took over most of Jones’ managerial duties and pushed for Jagger/Richards’ songwriting in the name of sustained financial success. Without Oldham’s presence or mention in the drama, Mick Jagger comes across as the principal villain behind Brian getting sacked from the group.

Brian (Aaron Snook) tells his story to the audience, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath” What’s more, significant musical creations get lost in Marra’s truncated retelling. At one point Marra has Brian Jones bring up “Their Satanic Majesties Request”, only to toss it off as just a forgettable, sub-par Stones’ album. Actually, the album was the Stones’ brief venture into psychedelic rock, which reached its apex in 1967. This was the direction in which Jones, with all his world music influences, was going. But its production, broken up by court appearances and random showings by band members and their friends, proved to be a monster to complete. Once produced, it looked like a cheap knock off compared to the Beatles’ wildly successful “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which had beaten the Stones to release by six months.

“Their Satanic Majesties Request” was Jones’ last hoorah in terms of his musical influence on the band. According to Richie Unterberger of Allmusic, the album “. . . incorporated African rhythms, Mellotrons, and full orchestration. Never before or since did the Stones take so many chances in the studio. In 1968, the Stones would go back to the basics, and never wander down these paths again . . .” A 1998 bootleg box set of the outtakes of the Satanic sessions reveals Jones in fruitful collaboration with Keith Richards and session pianist Nicky Hopkins, creating the album’s eerie soundscapes. But psychedelic rock was soon to fade as quickly as it had blossomed and Brian was going with it.

Obviously not everything about the Jones’ life can be mentioned, but certainly these milestones deserve more than a glossing. In the end, however, Aftermath remains an enjoyable evening of nostalgic entertainment.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
    
   

Brian (Aaron Snook, left) talks to a reporter (Vincent Lonergan, center) while Mick (Nick Vidal, right) listens, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath".

   
  

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REVIEW: Aftermath (Signal Ensemble Theatre)

Life of Brian – a rolling visionary

 

Aftermath 2 Aftermath 5Aftermath 1  
  
Signal Ensemble Theatre presents
 
Aftermath
 
Written and directed by Ronan Marra
at Raven Theatre, West Stage, 6157 N. Clark  (map)
through June 6th  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I can’t hear the name Rolling Stones without the sound of “Jumping Jack Flash” appearing in my head. I can clearly see the Stones on Ed Sullivan – menacing and Aftermath 5kind of nasty in a sexy bad boy way. The tabloid stories and biographies ‘as told to’ are plentiful with the legendary musicians looking into the camera or artfully demurring. The Signal Ensemble Theatre’s production of Aftermath peers into the unsung genius of Brian Jones.

Writer/director Ronan Marra discovered Brian Jones’ story as a teenager and developed this play as a balanced and loving homage. Nick Vidal as Mick Jagger infuses a frisky and explosive energy into the performance. He slightly resembles Jagger and has a decent voice. Vidal veers into the operatic when singing “Lady Jane,” which threw me off a bit. Marra’s Jagger is an ego driven and preening icon. The reenactments of group interviews come off as both funny and painful to see how Jagger downplayed Jones’ contributions to music. He made himself and Keith Richards the centerpieces instead of acknowledging collaboration as a group.

Aaron Snook plays the role of Brian Jones. Snook speaks directly to the audience post mortem. He plays the drug-addled and mentally ill Jones with a childlike quality. Snook imparts a sympathetic edge that tempered the violence and tantrums for which Jones is remembered. Marra’s direction has Jones literally fading away, the lights making his blonde hair and pale skin even more so.

Comic relief comes in the form of Joseph Stearns and Bries Vannon as Keith Richards and Charlie Watts respectively. Richards’ drug use still leaves people wondering how he is alive. Stearns does a great imitation of Richards and plays the stoner beautifully. In a television interview, Jagger is seen doing most of the talking with the host but the focus is on Richards’ interaction with the host’s sidekick played by Phillip Winston. The best line of the night went to Stearns as well. (I’m thinking of Aftermath 1 getting “whiskey stealing interrogation banshee” put on a tee shirt). Vannon’s depiction of reticent drummer Charlie Watts is excellent in spite of no real physical resemblance. Vannon infuses the role with a dry and sweet manner. The running joke is that Watts always threatened to quit the band but never did.

Ensemble member Simone Roos ably plays the role of rock chick Anita Pallenberg. It has only been a recent occurrence that the women passed around by the bands have been telling their sides of the stories. To Marra’s credit, he writes Pallenberg as more than a groupie. The scenes between Roos and Snook are violent and painful as Jones’ paranoia and insecurity increase from the drugs and fear of abandonment.

Andrew Yearick, in the role of George Harrison, is a nice surprise. He recently appeared in The House of Yes at The Artistic Home Studio (our review ★★★). Yearick portrays a mellow and spiritual Harrison around the time of his exploration into Indian music. He and Snook share a duet on “Norwegian Wood,” self accompanied by guitar and sitar. Harrison is introducing the sitar to Jones as something that is tuned into the player and then they rush through the song, a pacing that is much too fast.

It is to be noted that this talented group of actors actually play the instruments and do a stellar job of it. You’ll no doubt find yourself grooving to the irresistible beats and riffs. On the night that I went, It was pretty evident that most of us were Stones fans.

The theatre is decorated with reenactments of classic Rolling Stones 45 and album covers. The stage is flanked by vertical rows of vinyl records in both sizes and set up for a concert. This is an appropriate choice since it really comes down to the music after an exploration of the legend. Aftermath is a poignant remembrance of Brian Jones and of a time when the world seemed much bigger.

 

  
  
Rating:  ★★★
  
  

Aftermath runs through June 6th, 2010. Thursday, Friday, and Saturdays at 8:30pm, Sundays at 3:30pm. (May 24th performance is at 7:30 pm) Tickets are available at www.signalensemble.com or call 773-347-1350. Be prepared to rock!

 

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REVIEW: The House of Yes (Artistic Home)

A resounding, yet disturbing, “Yes”

 

House of Yes Publicity Photo #1

 
The Artistic Home presents
 
The House of Yes
 
by Wendy Macleod
directed by
Kaiser Ahmed
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
thru May 2nd  |  tickets: $10-$15  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

This is a story of what the age of Camelot hath wrought and what happens when no one tells you no. The Artistic Home’s production of The House of Yes is a dark love story that takes place almost two decades after the assassination of JFK. It is also a master portrait of comic absurdity in the privileged class of America.

House of Yes Publicity Photo #2 The Pascal family is trapped in time and in collective delusion. The eldest daughter is named Jackie O (brilliantly played by Liz Ladach-Bark). It quickly becomes apparent that Jackie O is a very disturbed girl. Ladach-Bark speaks in a patrician tone reminiscent of Katherine Hepburn and gives a wonderful unhinged quality to her character.

Miranda Zola (Mrs. Pascal) is an elegantly beautiful performer whose character encourages and sustains an incestuous relationship between her children. Both chilling and funny, Mrs. Pascal seems to admire the twisted relationship between her twin children.

The play is set at Thanksgiving, which can be a cliché of family drama-trauma, but this family melee is done skillfully and without histrionics. Youngest son Anthony (played with subtle ferocity by Tom McGregor), who has dropped out of Princeton, a failure at most everything save for his role as antagonizing brother, is trying to keep up with his big brother Marty in more ways than one and taunts Jackie O, telling her that Marty is bringing home a friend. The oldest brother has been away at college and his sister has been away at a mental institution. When Marty Pascal (the outstanding Andrew Yearick) steps through the door with a fiancée Lesly (Devon Carson, who does a commendable job playing the the production’s one “normal” person), all hell breaks loose – literally. Yearick truly looks like Joe College of whom his mother should be proud. The unraveling of his psyche and his helplessness to the machinations of Jackie O is infuriating and spellbinding.

Within this play are three scenes that might stay with you for a time after leaving the theatre:

A scene between Ms. Ladach-Bark and Ms. Carson is terrifying and yet funny. Jackie O is brushing Lesly’s hair while interrogating her about Marty. It seemed as if she were going to bludgeon her with the brush or rip her neck open, but she let the catty remarks fly while sweetly brushing. It was a nail biter moment like Clemenza in the back seat in “The Godfather”.

The most riveting scene is the sick reenactment of the JFK assassination that serves as foreplay for the fevered sex between siblings. Jackie O dons a pink Chanel suit with macaroni and ketchup standing in for the brains of the dead president. Marty pretends to be riding in the convertible and Jackie O shoots him, then runs to his side to play the part of the terrified widow. The line uttered in the first scene about Jackie O holding Marty’s penis in the womb is echoed without words.

House of Yes Publicity Photo #3 Finally, the scene between Mr. McGregor and Ms. Carson is disturbing in a different way. It is hard to fathom that fiance Lesly would fall for Anthony’s line of bull. He claims to be a virgin with a brain tumor and he needs to have sex before he dies. Anthony then drops the bomb that Jackie O and her fiance Marty are lovers, which Lesly does not believe until she sees it with her own eyes. It’s not that the sibling relations revolt her but that she plays into their hands to stay in the game. The whole family is lined up against her at this point but Lesly thinks she can still get away with the prize of Marty. In fact, the whole family is lined up for Jackie O because she has always gotten her way. She has flushed a lizard down the toilet because she thought that Marty loved it more than her. Mrs. Pascal explains, “Jackie O has always gotten her way. That’s just the way it is.”  (The Pascals are like wolves that feed on outsiders. It is intimated that Mr. Pascal’s abandonment was really a murder that coincided with the hole being dug for central air conditioning. )

A great deal of skill and passion went into making an act of incest really an act of love. Yes, it is twisted  – but the actors, and superb direction by Kaiser Ahmed, gives one a sense that the damage was done before the twins took to playing house to a higher adult level.

The set design, by Mike Mroch, is quite beautiful and authentic. (I found myself going through a flashback to my grandmother’s house, with the polished wood bar and the trapezoid coffee table.) Gleaming martini glasses and decanters add a glint of extra danger to the action. The use of picture frames as windows is a touch of brilliance as well (although they could just as well have been funhouse mirrors!).

This production was a breakneck thrill ride for me. Everything is done impeccably. The director has done a beautiful and seamless job of directing very difficult material. This is an indictment of American privilege that shows how always getting one’s way becomes parasitic. Though horrifying to think that neighbors could be watching this family’s demise, I am glad that I got to be a voyeur in The House of Yes. Take the time to watch-this is theatre at its best.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

House of Yes Publicity Photo #4

The House of Yes runs through May 2nd, 2010 at The Artistic Home Acting Studio, 3914 N. Clark Street in Chicago. Performances are Thursdays at 7:30pm, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm and Sundays at 6:00pm. For tickets visit www.theartistichome.org or call 866-811-4111.

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