REVIEW: The Legend of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet (CIC)

  
  

Testing the limits of holiday schlock

  
  

Legend of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet

  
Chemically Imbalanced Comedy presents
  
The Legend of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet
  
Written by Marz Timms and Angie McMahon
Directed by Josie Dykas
Chemically Imabalanced Theater, 1422 W. Irving Park (map)
through Jan 16  |  tickets: $12   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

As an American, it may be hard to imagine Christmas without that magnanimous bearded man who is the reason for the season. No, not Jesus. Santa.

But, as surprising as this may sound, other cultures don’t have Santa Claus. Instead, they have other characters that award the good and punish the bad.

In The Netherlands, the giver of gifts is Sinterklaas, also known as Saint Nicholas, the patron saint of children. This tall, regal saint places gifts of fruit in good Dutch children’s shoes on the evening of Dec. 5. Sounds pretty much like Christmas so far, right? Well, this Sinterklaas character also has a faithful African servant named Zwarte Piet, who is often depicted in popular Dutch culture as a white man dressed in black face. Not so merry anymore, is it?

This kind of nonsensical, overtly racist foreign tradition is rife with material for a wonderful satire that speaks to America’s own wacky traditions and treatment of race. What amazing source material for a hilarious and poignant holiday play, right?

Unfortunately, in the hands of Chemically Imbalanced Comedy (CIC), The Legend of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet is as lame as a Christmas duck. There’s little story, the comedy is stale and the performances are weak. It’s one of those productions that probably started off as a brilliant idea but failed miserably in the execution.

The hour-long play tells the tale of Sinterklaas (Jeff Taylor) and Zwarte Piet (Chris Redd). Sinterklaas is a fairly established saint who is attempting to spread the tradition of gifting good Dutch children with fruit while punishing bad Dutch children with a trip to Spain. He goes to the local court one day and prevents the incarceration of Zwarte Piet by purchasing him. The two form a tenuous friendship.

After being harassed by a local gang of school children, Sinterklaas pays one of the kids a visit. When his parents notice him missing, they go on a hunt for the kidnapper. In the meantime, the gang of children is plotting to drive all the adults out of the city so they can rule the town. Did I mention this is an hour-long play?

Writers Angela McMahon (who is the theatre’s founder) and Marz Timms have tried to cram too much plot into this tiny production. What results is an overwrought mess void of intriguing characters or any relatable relationships. This completely obliterates the hope of any real comedy, as generally the best humor arises out of situations with characters we empathize with. Instead, we get a few bits and gags, many of which feel forced or worn. (Can we have a comedy with a black man that doesn’t force him to wear a dress?)

At no point does the audience really get to know any character. Instead, we are left to connect with cardboard cutouts who seem incapable of executing more than one trick. This is both a shortcoming of the writing as well as the acting. Rob Palmerin as the leader of the Dutch gang doesn’t shift at all from loud and angry. Taylor as Sinterklaas is flat and emotionless. He’s like a big gift-giving robot.

Finally, the entire show feels slapdash. Actors talk at one another, as if struggling to recite lines from memory. Musical numbers are weakly sung. This may improve during the run, granted the company amps up its rehearsal schedule.

CIC is capable of doing great work (see my review for The Book of Liz ★★★★). The Legend of Sinterklaas and Zwarte Piet, however, comes across as Christmas pandering. It’s as if the company scrambled to get a holiday play on the table to cash in on the Christmastime trend. Sinterklaas would certainly be displeased – no fruit for you!

  
  
Rating: ★½
    
   

REVIEW: The Book of Liz (Chemically Imbalanced Comedy)

Innovation triumphs over imitation

 

 

book of liz with mr peanut

   
Chemically Imbalanced Comedy presents
   
The Book of Liz
   
Written by Amy and David Sedaris
Directed by Angie McMahon
1420 W. Irving Park (map)
through December 18th |  tickets: $18  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Amy Sedaris is a nut. I’ve been following her career since her early days on Comedy Central’s surrealist sketch show “Exit 57” (directed by Annoyance Theatre founder Mick Napier). Unlike her female contemporaries Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, who have both deservedly found success on network television, Sedaris has never learned, or perhaps wanted, to tone down her irreverent brand of humor and repackage it for the masses, as evidenced by the darkly hilarious Strangers With Candy. In short, she is a unique spirit that demands a cult following.

Book of Liz - Sarah Rose Graber That is why I was blown away by Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s remount of its production of The Book of Liz, a play penned by Sedaris and her equally talented brother, David Sedaris. Sarah Rose Graber fills in for the title character, Sister Elizabeth Donderstock, a character originally portrayed by Sedaris herself, and brings an energy that is both congruent with the play’s wacky tone while wholly original. This is significant because I would expect Sedaris’ shadow to intimidate most actresses into paying homage, but not so with Graber.

The Book of Liz concerns a small community of Quaker-like Christians known as the Squeamish. The Squeamish are simple folk who do without modern-day amenities and instead spend their time praising God and making cheeseballs. Liz is the under-appreciated genius behind the cheeseballs, which serve as the community’s financial backbone. Her patience is tested when parishioner Brother Brightbee (Brian Kash) visits from a nearby community to learn the lucrative craft. It is then that Liz resolves to run away and experience the outside world.

While on the outside, Liz encounters a cast of colorful characters, including a Ukrainian couple that speaks with cockney accents and a colonial-themed restaurant staffed by recovering alcoholics. Meanwhile, back at the Squeamish community, Brother Brightbee becomes increasingly frustrated as he fails again and again to replicate the famous cheeseball recipe.

Graber deserves all the praise she can get for her wide-eyed portrayal of Liz. She is unwavering in her commitment to the character’s little tics, from her squeaky voice to her “Gosh darn” facial expressions. Equally worthy of praise is her supporting cast, including Kash, who did double duty by filling in for Bryan Beckwith, the actor slated to play restaurant manager Duncan. As Brother Brightbee, Kash’s hyperbolized passive aggression toward Liz makes for some tense comedy. Adam El-Sharkawi, too, does an outstanding job as Reverend Tollhouse, the Squeamish community’s no-nonsense leader. In one of the play’s only dramatic scenes, Liz confronts the Reverend about his workhorse ways. Here, Graber and El-Sharkawi forge a genuinely touching connection in the midst of the otherwise hair-brained comedy.

Angie McMahon’s direction is resourceful. Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s space is tight—incredibly tight. And yet she manages to swiftly transform the stage from a parish to a restaurant to a doctor’s office without letting the momentum of the play slow for a moment.

Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s The Book of Liz stays true to the Sedaris spirit. Fortunately, this does not hamper the actors from taking risks and breathing new life into the play’s characters. If you are looking for a good laugh (and who isn’t these days), check out this production!

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

Cast (*indicates returning cast members)

*Sarah Rose Graber…Liz
*Brian Kash…Brother Brightbee
*Nathan Petts…Donny/Visil
*Cynthia Shur…Cecily/Dr. Barb
*Adam El Sharkawi …Rev. Tollhouse
*Lina Bunte…Sister Buterworth
Laura Wilkinson…Oxanna
Eric Bays…Yvonne
Bryan Beckwith…Duncan
Directed by *Angie McMahon

  
  

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