REVIEW: 26 Miles (Teatro Vista and Rivendell Ensemble)

‘26 Miles’ is quite the trip!

 

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Teatro Vista and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble present
   
26 Miles
   
Written by Quiara Alegria Hudes
Directed by Tara Mallen
at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through November 21  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

The distance between Philadelphia and Wyoming is 1,835 miles. The distance between a mother and daughter is further away and closer than that. Teatro Vista and Rivendell Theatre Ensemble present the Midwest premiere of 26 Miles by Tony-Award winning playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes. Quirky teenager Olivia runs away from her dad’s house. She is assisted in the escape by her mother. After throwing up fifteen times, Olivia is desperate for someone to care. She calls her biological mother, Beatriz, who had given up custody and visitation rights eight years earlier. In fact, 26Miles6282according to Olivia’s journal log, Beatriz hasn’t spoken to her daughter in five months. A spontaneous road trip to see buffalo becomes a journey of self-realization for mother and daughter. With a jamming 80’s soundtrack, 26 Miles is a trip of discovery that takes some surprising turns.

Playwright Quiara Alegria Hudes doesn’t rush to the destination. Hudes allows the characters to continue to identify themselves right up until the show comes to a complete stop. The mother-daughter duo drives the experience perfectly. Ashley Neal (Olivia) is hilarious as the creative philosophical teenager. She muses her journal thoughts out loud with “note: do I believe in…” She publishes a magazine. Neal is that high school geek that is too smart to fit in. Her animated face adds another layer of humor to her stellar performance. Sandra Marquez (Beatriz) is the feisty Cuban mother. Marquez rages with impulsiveness. Unlike Neal’s character, Marquez is not easily recognizable. As the M.I.A. mom, Marquez has to work extra hard to win the audience over. Marquez commits for the long haul! She faces the situation with wise resignation of ‘it’s not good. It’s not bad. It’s like erosion. It just is.’ Keith Kupferer (Aaron) and Edward Torres (Manuel) are the guys that cause the gals to run. They take a back seat to the mother-daughter bonding. Although their supporting roles are important, it’s their amusing scene transition antics that are most memorable.

 

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Director Tara Mallen has mapped the journey with purposeful appeal. Mallen doesn’t settle with poignant performances by a talented cast. She adds in paper flying, music blaring and Blues Brothers’ scene transitions. The extras provide the scenic route on what could be a long road trip. The scenery itself also supplies a subtle layer of storytelling. The set, designed by Regina Garcia, has a slanted floor with suspended stairs that don’t quite connect. The backdrop is a snippet of Olivia’s journal with pictures and words. It’s a trip! Teatro Vista and Rivendell travel well together; all the parts work together for high performance. It’s the truly collaborative effort that catapults 26 Miles to go the distance.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
    
    

26 Miles plays every Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 3pm through November 21st.  Running time is 90-minutes with no intermission.

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REVIEW: Stage Door (Griffin Theatre)

Huge, hugely talented cast gives their all to ‘Stage Door’

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Griffin Theatre Company presents
 
Stage Door
 
By Edna Ferber and George S. Kaufman
Directed by Robin Witt
Theatre Building Chicago, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. (map)
though May 23 | tickets: $18-$28 | more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

One of the most overlooked and underrated writers of the 20th century, Edna Ferber brilliantly showcased the lives of working women in her keenly stories. In the 1936 Stage Door, Ferber and George S. Kaufman crafted an impressive and charming drama about one such downtrodden group.

MechelleMoeatpaino Set in the Footlights Club, a New York boardinghouse for theatrical women, the story follows the lives of the young contenders of Broadway. Hoping for their big break, they subsist on hope and pennies … and often succumb to temptations away from the stage. For the luckiest, Hollywood lures; for others, love, or security, or pure hopelessness.

No one would write a play like this today, and Griffin deserves tremendous props for producing it all. It’s not that its themes haven’t been covered in subsequent plays — 1991’s I Hate Hamlet, for instance, takes on similar Broadway vs. Hollywood issues — but that the cast is huge. There are 32 distinct characters, played in this production by a cast of 27. Quite literally, they don’t make ’em like this anymore!

What’s more, when I say "distinct characters," I mean just that. Each is skillfully introduced, significant and a unique personality that adds to the heart and spunk of this rich play. Director Robin Witt brings out those traits to the fullest.

Mechelle Moe stars as the central character: plucky, generous Terry Randall, who’s been trying to make a go of it on Broadway for three years. Despite her lack of success, she remains stagestruck. "We live and breathe theater and that’s what I’m crazy about," she says.

Her friends tell her she’s talented, but she hasn’t managed more than a few weeks of work in all her time in New York. The play suggests that’s because she’s not beautiful and doesn’t appear well offstage. It’s perhaps a slight flaw in the script that we never see Terry acting, and can’t judge for ourselves. Moe’s own performance occasionally seems too gung-ho, like the young Judy Garland enthusing about putting on a play in the barn, but she makes the audience care about Terry.

We do get to judge the talents of Olga Brandt, a classically trained pianist who earns a living playing for dance rehearsals. "For that I studied fifteen years with Kolijinsky!" she says in disgust, and solaces herself by playing Chopin on the boardinghouse piano. Janeane Bowlware is both a skilled musician and delightfully funny in this difficult role. (In a nice theatrical in-joke, during most of the play, the piano’s music stand displays sheet music from Show Boat, the Jerome KernOscar Hammerstein musical based on Ferber’s 1926 novel.)

We also see some fine comic turns from Sara McCarthy as Bernice Niemeyer, the house busybody; Erin Meyers as the man-hating Ann Braddock; Ashley Neal and Christina Gorman as Big Mary and Little Mary, a Mutt and Jeff duo; and Kate McGroarty as Pat Devine, a leggy dancer earning her living in nightclub shows.

Other notable performances include Stacie Barra, archly dry as Terry’s cynical friend Judith Canfield, and Jeremy Fisher, strong as Keith Burgess, the earnest young playwright on whom Terry pins her hopes. Lucy Carapetyan is ardent as Jean Maitland, who urges Terry to go with her to Hollywood.

mechellemoeJamesFarruggio Maggie Cain gives us a matter-of-fact Mattie, the boardinghouse’s maid of all work, and Chuck Filipov a subtle performance as Frank, a teenage household helper, while Mary Anne Bowman alternately fawns and frowns as Mrs. Orcutt, a one-time actress turned boardinghouse manager.

Judith Lesser and Mary Poole play a compelling scene as Linda Shaw, sneaking in after a night with wealthy married man, and her unexpectedly visiting mother.

Marika Engelhardt plays Madeleine Vauclain, an actress from Seattle, trying to find a double date for visiting hometown conventioneers — Jeff Duhigg and Paul Popp, as a pair of buffoonish Pacific Northwest lumbermen. Rakisha Pollard is brave as Louise Mitchell, an unsuccessful actress sadly leaving Broadway to marry the boy back home in Wisconsin.

It feels like hair-splitting to point out the few flaws. James Farruggio seems a little stiff as David Kingsley, the moviemakers’ agent who urges Terry to stick to the stage, and Caroline Neff is a bit too detached as Kaye Hamilton, Terry’s desperate and destitute roommate.

D’wayne Taylor doubles as a Hollywood producer and as Terry’s father, a small-town Indiana doctor. He acts well in both parts, but he stands out oddly as the one African American in the company, making me wonder what led Witt to cast him. Color-blind casting works well when it’s done with consistency, but if you’re going to suspend historical accuracy for the sake of diversity, you need more than a token. When all the rest of such a large cast is white, it jars suspension of disbelief to have the sole black person in the show play the father of a white woman.

Filling out the cast, Jennifer Betancourt plays Bobby Melrose, a Southern belle; Morgan Maher is her boyfriend, Sam Hastings, an actor from Texas. Joey deBettencourt portrays Jimmy Devereaux, a confident would-be actor who hasn’t ever auditioned for a professional part; Skyler Schrempp, Susan Paige, perpetual understudy; and Erin O’Shea Kendall Adams, daughter of a family of Boston Brahmins.

Witt stages the show in three acts, with two intermissions — a 1930s convention that always makes feel as if I’ve really been to the theater — and blocks it beautifully, particularly in a wonderful Act III scene that puts nearly all the cast onstage. Marianna Csaszar‘s convincing set, built around a central staircase, helps to give the wide-ranging scenes focus.

Stage Door was the basis of the 1937 film of the same name, but the movie’s plot bears little similarity to this delicious play (which seems rather a meta-joke in itself). Don’t miss this rarely performed gem.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

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Review: Rivendell’s “These Shining Lives”

Find Time To See It!

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Rivendell Theatre Ensemble presents:

These Shining Lives

by Melanie Marnich
directed by Rachel Walshe
at the Raven Theatre thru November 21st (buy tickets)

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Catherine is elated to be starting a new job painting 100+ watches a day at 8 cents a watch. Time is her friend? Or is it? Rivendell Theatre Ensemble remounts its critically acclaimed and Jeff Award nominated These Shining Lives.  Directed by Rachel Walshe,These Shining Lives is the true story of four of the many women who work at the Radium Dial Company in Ottawa, Illinois in the 1920’s. Unaware of the risk, these workers paint the glow-in-the-dark faces on watches utilizing radium. Women are voting, smoking in public and joining the workforce. Having a well-paying job in a challenging economy brings independence and validation. Later, suspecting that something isn’t quite right, the women struggle to not lose the freedom, security and camaraderie of employment. These Shining Lives uses a tragedy in history to illustrate the strong bonds of marriage and friendship.

As Catherine (Kathy Logelin) tells us at the beginning of the show “this story starts out as a fairy tale.” And she’s right – it’s enchanting!  Playwright Melanie Marnich chooses the non-Silkwood route and focuses instead on the vulnerability and innocence of a young woman’s love for her husband, her job and her friends. The onstage intimacy between Logelin and her husband Tom (Guy Massey) isn’t of the sizzle variety (that never sustains anyway). It’s the “looks like you had a worse day at work than me, Katy, I’ll cook dinner” charming kind. Logelin also shines with her gal pals: Charlotte (Ashley Neal), Frances (Caitlin McGlone) and Pearl (Rani Waterman). They start as a work clique with mindless chatter to fill up the workday. “Gossip is the devil’s radio,” proclaims Frances. “It’s my favorite station,” quips Charlotte. Then, it’s six years later, and the women with whom Catherine has randomly been assigned to have become her family. And her family is dying. Under the direction of Rachel Walshe, the cast does an excellent job of portraying finding joy in the simplistic shininess of the everyday.

Throughout the play, we wonder why these women stick a radium laced paintbrush repeatedly in their mouth. This conjures up the ominous thought that perhaps sometime in the future, people may be surprised, but not shocked, to learn there is a link between cell phones and brain tumors….

Rivendell Theatre Ensemble is giving Chicago a second opportunity to find joy in the simplistic times of These Shining Lives. It would be a tragedy to miss it! (Remember to turn off your cell phone during the show.)

Rating: ««««

 

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The offstage Tom described the show as beautiful, ornate and tragic.

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