Review: Trouble in Mind (The Artistic Home)

  
  

Race, Art collide in emotionally charged play

  
      

MannersWilettachair

  
The Artistic Home presents
  
Trouble in Mind
  
Written Alice Childress
Directed by
Vaun Monroe
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through March 20  |  tickets: $28  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

While watching the Artistic Home’s engaging production of Trouble in Mind, I couldn’t help but think of Spike Lee‘s 2000 satire “Bamboozled. For those unfamiliar, the movie revolves around a black television writer who is frustrated with the depictions of African-Americans in entertainment. In an effort to sabotage his career and the network, he pitches the concept of a modern-day minstrel show to his colleagues. Rather than balk, they bite. Two inner-city black men are plucked from obscurity and shoved into the limelight to serve as the show’s stars. The sitcom is a hit, but not without ample psychic costs to those involved.

MillieJohnHowever, where “Bamboozled” is deficient in summarizing the Catch-22 that is financial success and artistic compromise, trailblazing playwright Alice Childress succinctly and effectively attacks the matter—nearly 50 years before Lee’s attempt.

Trouble in Mind takes place in 1957. A mixed cast is about to start rehearsals for what the business terms a "colored" play. We are introduced to the passionate, self-taught Wiletta Mayer (Velma Austin), a black actress who will be filling the role of the mother. John Nevins (Armand Fields), an educated but green actor, enters. Mayer gives him tips on how to act around white theater professionals. Her advice amounts to doing what you’re told, laughing at the appropriate times and, in general, acting pleasant. It’s information she will later regret.

The play is directed by a domineering no-nonsense white director named Al Manners (John Mossman). Al exhibits every stereotypical laughable trait attributed to his ilk. He uses flowery, overwrought language and overly intellectualizes the dramatic process. Meanwhile, the content of the play is chock full of dumbed-down racist conventions with characters written to be pitied. It’s the kind of piece that leaves the presumably white audience feeling morally superior to their racist white brethren. But despite the fact that they play such laughably unrealistic characters, the black actors go along with the script because, unfortunately, a part is a part.

Trouble arises when Wiletta’s character instructs her son, who is on the run from an angry white lynch mob, to surrender. Wiletta feels the action is disingenuous. Al is unmoved by her requests to reconsider the script. Instead, the two get into a heated argument that serves as the emotionally charged climax of the play.

     
MannersJohn WilettaSheldon
WilettaManners MannersWilettachair

The actors in this production give it their all. Austin fills her role with a great passion, turning up the ferocity as Wiletta’s frustration mounts. Meanwhile, Mossman is repulsive, yet sympathetic and even likeable, as the blindly driven director. The actors all appear exceptionally present in their roles, constantly emoting and reacting to the slightest action on stage.

One qualm I have – I do wish the performers would pause a bit more during some of the audience’s heartier laughs. It is very easy to miss a line or two of dialogue, much of which is so rich in content and humor that it’s a shame for it to go unheard. In addition, some might find the play tedious due to its lack of external action. Instead, the story arc audience’s are accustomed to is relegated to Wiletta’s internal struggle with her role.

The Artistic Home‘s Trouble in Mind is a solid production. Thespians and lay audiences alike will enjoy the self-deprecating nature of the play’s humor. But the larger takeaway is the message that when it comes to race and entertainment, rarely are issues black and white.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

JudyWilettaJohn


Artists

 

Featuring Guest Artist Velma Austin and Ensemble Member John Mossman; as well as Ensemble Members Frank Nall and Eustace Allen; and Guest Artists Kim Chelf, Armand Fields, Tom Lally, Cola Needham and Kelly Owens.

Director: Vaun Monroe
Assistant Director: A.J. Ware
Stage Manager: Loretta Rode
Assistant Stage Manager: Maggie Neumeyer
Dramaturg: Matt Ciavarella
Set Designer: Joseph Riley
Lighting Designer: Jess Harpenau
Costume Designer: Lynn Sandburg
Prop Designer: Lindsay Monahan
Sound Designer: Adam Smith  

Playwright: Alice Childress

  

  
     

REVIEW: Big Gay Pudding (White Rainbows)

This pudding needs a dash more passion

Big Gay Pudding - White Rainbow

   
White Rainbows Chicago presents
   
Big Gay Pudding + Ding!
   
at The Call, 1547 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through October 23  |  tickets: $10-$14  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

I’m unfamiliar with White Rainbows’ previous comedy reviews White Rainbows (2009) and In Gaga We Trust (2010), but their material for Big Gay Pudding, now playing at The Call, shows a young and inexperienced company still in need of training, finesse and daring. Never mind that they are up against a fierce comedy town like this—their sketches alone revealed comics familiar and coy in playful exchanges among each other, but not so sure of just what they were selling the audience. The Call’s terrible club acoustics alone dampened projection and made the performances seem flat and timid.

Big Gay Pudding - White Rainbow At least their openers, Chelsea Devantez and Emily Walker as Ding!, know how to belt it. Much of Ding!’s comedy material is just as coy and queer-centered as White Rainbows’ – but they show greater confidence and control in styling with songs like “Nothing is Worse Than a Man in a Stylish Hat” and “I Will Be Your Fag Hag.” Ding! doesn’t do so well with improvising song responses to questions about their sex lives, mostly because the answers come so pat, short and predictable, without any foray into wordplay. They do far better with prepared songs that celebrate the bygone days of laser tag or saucily promise “Boy, I’m Gonna Rape You Tonight.”

What to do with the White Rainbows? For one, their central sketch about the pudding has to go. In it, the concoction of different, supposedly outlandish (but not really) fruit puddings is supposed to symbolize transgressive queerness. But the sketch itself never goes far enough into daring, new, bold, or funny territory. It comes across more like an in-joke between friends that later falls flat when presented to a wider audience. Likewise, queers throughout history, gay men boasting like straight guys about sexual exploits, and the miraculous powers of straight-acting gays rely all on the in-jokes of tired gay stereotypes, which makes the sketches go from zero to tired in 2.8 seconds.

Far better are the recurring cameo appearances of Winnie the Pooh, played by various cast members dressed in a Pooh costume. The player who came up with this device deserves the gold star. Who cares if it’s a device as old as Monty Python–Kevin Reader’s subtly funny farewell to Pooh in adolescence, followed by reclaiming Pooh as a lover at a gay dating service later, is inspired.

Other sketches wander into familiar territory, but still retain comic heft. Michael Barin and Stanley A. Chong interact well as a gay couple separated only by one partner’s fascination with his new cell phone. Arianna Wheat really sells her role as the bored housewife singing, “I want to be where the strippers are . . .” to the Disney tune “Part of Your World” from The Little Mermaid. A quiz show called “Name That Vampire Drama,” emceed by a vampire, brings home the point of how little originality we demand from entertainment serving up sexy bloodsuckers.

We’ll need to demand more originality and daring from White Rainbows, however. Their strength may be to joke more coyly about queer experience than to be in your face and there’s certainly no need to change that. But have they got the nerve and conviction to take their audience to unexpected places? Or are we still hanging out at the same old pudding party?

   
   
Rating: ★½
  
  

Gay Pudding - White Rainbow - poster

 

 

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Bailiwick Chicago extends F**KING MEN for 2nd time

Bailiwick Chicago Announces 3-Week Extension

of Joe DiPietro’s F**KING MEN


Executive Director Kevin Mayes announced today that Bailiwick Chicago’s hit production of Joe DiPietro’s F**KING MEN will be extended for an additional three weeks due to popular demand. Performances will continue through Sunday, August 29 at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont with the original cast.

We are so pleased that Chicago audiences have embraced this production,” said Mayes, “and we are excited that we’ve been able to keep the original cast together for this second extension. It’s been an amazing summer for Bailiwick Chicago, with our two hit shows Aida and F**KING MEN. We are incredibly proud of – and humbled by – the response.

F**KING MEN observes the sex lives of the modern urban gay American male. Conceived as a noir-riff on Arthur Schnitzler’s 19th century play, LA RONDE, the play examines ten men from all walks of life as they negotiate the before and after of lust, love, betrayal and the pursuit of sex and emotional connection. Funny, poignant, sometimes dramatic, always provocative and sexy, the show has been critically acclaimed by Chicago critics: “Emotionally Searing…Superb Performances…there is truth and understanding in F**KING MEN.” (Hedy Weiss, Chicago Sun-Times) “…[F**KING MEN] is serviced brilliantly by this snappy, assured Chicago production.” (Nina Metz, Chicago Tribune) “…F**KING MEN is pretty fucking solid.” (Kris Vire, TimeOut Chicago).

Bailiwick Chicago has launched a dedicated web site for the production with photos, videos, and additional information about the show at www.FMenChicago.com.

Performances are Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 7 p.m. and 9 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m. General admission tickets are $25. Special Reserved seating is available for $30. Student and Industry rush tickets will be available at the door for $15 at every Sunday performance. Group (6+) tickets are $20.00. To purchase tickets, call the Stage 773 box office at 773-327-5252, or go towww.ticketmaster.com.

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REVIEW: F**king Men (Bailiwick Chicago Theatre)

The Circle of Gay Life

FMen-Vanguard 

    
Bailiwick Chicago presents
   
F**king Men
   
Written by Joe DiPietro
Directed by
Tom Mullen
at
Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through July 25th  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

I don’t know if you read the papers, but us gay guys get a pretty bad rap. If we’re not contributing to the downfall of society, we’re made out to be self-loathing, sex-crazed loveless loners.

But the truth is, gay men—just like all human beings—are capable of love, and in fact, spend much of their lives, as everyone does, looking for it. And it is this search for Ryan - Beaumeaning, connection and kindness in a sea of sex that playwright Joe DiPietro attempts to illuminate in his cyclical play Fucking Men.

Fucking Men is a loose adaptation of the 19th century play La Ronde in which pairings of characters are featured in scenes preceding and succeeding sexual encounters. It’s an interesting structure—often employed as an improv comedy exercise—that lends itself to strong characterizations and oodles of dramatic irony.

The play begins and ends with John (Arthur Luis Soria), a young lovelorn prostitute. John is about to turn a trick. The trick’s name is Steve (Cameron Harms), a closeted military man who wants to receive oral sex from a man, you know, just to test it out. After the deed is done, Steve freaks out and beats up John.

Next is a silent scene in which Steve is in the gym sauna opposite Marco (Armand Fields). Steve touches his chest, signaling to Marco that he’s interested. Without saying a word, the two men fool around. Afterward, Marco continues his locker room routine: change out of clothes, pack up his bag, etc., while the closeted Steve rambles on about his sexuality and his encounter with John.

Naturally, the next scene depicts Armand with yet another character (this one a wisecracking, pot-smoking college student). And the domino effect of the La Ronde continues from there.

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The overarching theme of the play seems to be the need to inject kindness into our relationships, no matter how fleeting. It is all too easy to take advantage of others to fulfill our own selfish sexual and emotional desires. But if you come at sex with a sense of empathy, then you can be sure to limit the amount of pain you spread throughout the world and increase the love. Think of it like paying it forward…only sexually.

Some of the scenes really capture this idea. When the older and partnered Leo (Thad Anzur) enters the college dorm of Kyle (Cameron Johnson) for a random sexual encounter, he gets cold feet. Leo wants to know Kyle, to have some emotional connection prior to the physical connection. Youthful Kyle just wants sex and makes it  clear that if Leo isn’t going to give it up then he can easily get it elsewhere. The two end up chatting and finding some common ground to connect on. Leo gets the emotional connection he’s been seeking, and Kyle gets the sex.

Christian - KarmannOther scenes, however, are less believable. The opening scene in particular falls flat. When the closeted Steve gushes about his self-doubt and sexual confusion to the prostitute, I had to roll my eyes. The scene just doesn’t seem grounded in reality. A prostitute is going to know not to take on a buff, aggressive client who is deeply self-hating and fearful of gays. It’s a safety precaution. And the closeted Steve’s dialogue is riddled with more clichés than a Lifetime movie.

The other major flaw of the play is the music. Laurence Mark Wythe composed original instrumentals for Fucking Men that play as transitions between scenes as set pieces are moved and altered to create the various settings. And although the music itself is just fine, it undercuts the dramatic tension of the scenes when it is used underneath the dialogue. I’m assuming this was a decision made by director Mullen, and I would hope it is relegated only to scene transitions in future performances.

Overall, Fucking Men strikes at the core of what motivates gay men—and quite possibly everyone else too—to have sex. And although there are some weaknesses with a few of the characters whose behaviors just are beyond believable, it’s pretty easy to find traces of yourself in most of them.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

fucking men cast with playwright Joe DiPietro

Cast of “F**king Men”, including Director Tom Mullen and Playwright Joe DiPietro.

           
           

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