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: Closer (AstonRep Theatre)

  
  

Endless scene changes stifle strong ensemble work

  
  

CloserPoster

  
AstonRep Theatre Company presents
   
Closer
  
Written by Patrick Marber
Directed by Rob Cramer
at
Heartland Studio Theatre, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through March 5  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Patrick Marber’s magnum opus Closer hits like a Classical tragedy with “Friends” era embellishment. Marber won a shelf-full of awards and recognition for the play, but has since gone on to craft such garbage as “The Tourist” screenplay. In 2004, he turned the play into a Julia Roberts/Jude Law vehicle and found raving mainstream audiences. Closer is now one of about five plays you’ll probably find on any given Borders’ drama section.

Despite the hype, the play packs a punch, drawing comparisons to Brits like Noel Coward and Harold Pinter. Unlike much of the schlock coming out of the late ‘90s/early aughts (Proof, anybody?), Marber writes harrowing thematic depth and dense, conflicted characters. The play does indeed feel like a period piece of the ‘90’s.

AstonRep Theatre Company’s mission is to bring theatre to non-theatre audiences, which perhaps explains choosing such a well-known piece for their second production. Snuggly fit in the BoHo space in Rogers Park, their production doesn’t seem to go anywhere conceptually. What saves the show from total destruction is Marber’s deft writing sensibilities and an incredibly talented cast.

Overall, the production feels like an acting class final. The talent on-stage contrasts starkly with the poor production values, creating a strange rift that never resolves.

The four-actor piece follows two men and two women over a few years. The characters meet, have sex, fall in love (or not), and inevitably break up and squash each others’ hearts, not always in that order. Dan (Ray Kasper), an obituary writer, meets Alice (newcomer Aja Wiltshire), an ex-stripper prone to falling in front of moving cars. As the months go on, Anna (Amy Kasper) and Larry (Robert Tobin) get thrown into the mix. Affairs spiral off in all sorts of directions, most end in emotional explosions. Then there is the making up, marriages, divorces, and long talks in strip clubs.

Ray Kasper, although too old for the part, works well against Wiltshire, easily the most charming member of the cast. Although he can’t nail Larry’s anger, Robert Tobin finds and plays up the humor. Amy Kasper makes bold choices from the beginning. The cast struggle with some of the weightier moments of the play, although they are always in sync with the dramatic arch of the piece.

Director Rob Cramer’s production is extremely hampered by amateurish stumbling blocks. The transitions are the most glaring issues, making a 90 minute script into well over 2 hours. There are twelve scenes in the play. Here, each transition is done in blackout, without any music, and without any creativity. The AstonRep gang forgets that this is all part of the show, too. Designer Lea Tobin’s set feels rushed and inadequate. We see all the wires, but we shouldn’t. I wish Cramer lessened everything and just focused on his cast. A simpler touch would make the show quicker, clearer, and more engaging.

I’ll be honest, considering the missteps, I thought this was going to be a groaner of a production. But the cast really pull the play together, forging the believably convoluted relationships that Marber requires. Even the scene where Dan and Larry interact in a sex chat room, for example, is hilariously crude yet Kasper and Tobin use it to reveal quite a lot about each character.

Marber’s writing dabbles a bit in romantic comedy, melodrama, and tragedy, but Closer defies any neat Hollywood genre placement. Unlike many writers of our time, he allows the story to drive itself in any direction it needs. The folks behind AstonRep understand this, but they aren’t able to articulate it.

  
   
Rating: ★★
  
  

Artists

 

CastAmy Kasper, Ray Kasper, Robert Tobin, and Aja Wiltshire.

Production: Rob Cramer (Director), Jeremiah Barr (Assistant Director), Samantha Barr (Lighting Design, Stage Manager) and Lea Tobin (Scenic Design, Graphic Designer).

  
  

REVIEW: The Elephant Man (Boho Theatre)

  
  

Boho fills stage with profound, meticulous performances

  
  

Mike Tepeli as John Merrick and Laura Rook, Stephanie Sullivan, and Jill Connolly as the Pinheads. Photo by Peter Coombs.

  
The Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
     
The Elephant Man
   
Written by Bernard Pomerance
Directed by
June Eubanks
at
Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through Feb 6  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Review by Paige Listerud

Just what is the price for belonging and acceptance? What if one can never fulfill the requirements for being part of the society of the human race, no matter how gentle, law-abiding and meritorious one is, no matter what efforts others make to provide some integration? Bernard Pomerance’s The Elephant Man is unique in that it takes these issues to absolute extremes and forces us to see ourselves through its funhouse mirror. Boho Theatre has mounted an elegant, stately and psychologically mature production at Theatre Wit. June Eubanks’ direction adheres to the minimalist aesthetic and self-consciousness theatricality the play was born in, crystallizing Mike Tepeli as John Merrick and Steve O'Connell as Frederick Treves. Photo by Peter Coombs.poetically profound moments that elevate language much in the same way that John Merrick (Mike Tepeli) describes the effect of the uplifting architecture of St. Philip’s church.

John Merrick, dubbed the ‘Elephant Man’, and his place in late Victorian society, is uplifted for our gaze. He is a man who can never stop being a spectacle; his life, trapped in outrageous physical deformity, is constantly at the mercy of what the rest of his fellow humans see and suppose of him. I can praise the excellence with which Tepeli assumes Merrick’s form, virtually pretzel-twisting himself into character at the beginning of each scene, but more excellent is the way he captures Merrick’s childlike, innocent acceptance of himself, of those around him and his lot in life. Just as powerful are Merrick’s moments questioning, from his bath, Treves’ notions of established order or the rush of intense emotion upon Merrick once he shakes Mrs. Kendall’s (Cameron Feagin) hand for the first time–or loosing her, on Treves’ orders. Tepeli has completely mastered his role, with assurance the audience can relax into watching how others respond to him.

Likewise, Steve O’Connell’s Treves has all smooth and put-together bearing of a clueless do-gooder just beginning to realize how dubious his mercy towards Merrick is and how little he can do to alter the inequities between them. His relationship with Merrick seamlessly sets into motion Treves’ re-examination of his culture’s social inequality. When he begins to crack under unbearable conundrums about his real value, as a respected member of the British Empire or as a human being, O’Connell sculpts Treves’ emotional downfall with intricate care–his breakdown in the arms of Bishop How (Thad Azur) is every bit the epiphany it is supposed to be.

     
Steve O'Connell as Frederick Treves, Mike Tepeli as John Merrick, Cameron Feagin as Mrs. Kendall. Photo by Peter Coombs. Zach Bloomfield as Ross and Mike Tepeli as John Merrick. Photo by Peter Coombs.

The same meticulous care can be witnessed in every aspect of Boho’s production—one of the more scintillating aspects being that the rest of the cast take on multiple roles and carve a unique, distinctive character with each role. Cameron Feagin indelibly etches both the horrified missionary Nurse Sandwich and the charmingly controlled and worldly actress Mrs. Kendall. Zach Bloomfield’s Ross is devastating, particularly when he comes begging to Merrick in the hospital for another crack at being his handler—Bloomfield and Tepeli could conduct an acting masterclass based on that scene study alone. Michael Kingston’s turn as Carr Gomm brings the right note of complacency to his foil for Treves—an administrator quite content to oversee Merrick’s care, so long as his freakish presence keeps the money rolling in to the hospital in donations from the upper classes.

Indeed, the only flaws of the production may be its still awkward scene changes. Jill Vanc’s projection of scene titles and their announcement at each scene purposely heighten The Elephant Man’s theatricality. But upon opening the show still suffered some clumsiness in actors getting on and off through the transition—a problem that could be worked out in the course of the run.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Thad Anzur as Bishop How, Michael Kingston as Carr Gomm, Mike Tepeli as John Merrick, Michael Mercier as Lord John, Cameron Feagin as Mrs. Kendall, Steve O'Connell as Frederick Treves. Photo by Peter Coombs

Photo (left to right): Thad Anzur as Bishop How, Michael Kingston as Carr Gomm, Mike Tepeli as John Merrick, Michael Mercier as Lord John, Cameron Feagin as Mrs. Kendall, Steve O’Connell as Frederick Treves. (photo by Peter Coombs / Boho)

     
     

REVIEW: Striking 12 (BoHo Theatre)

  
  

Good music does not a good musical make

  
  

Dustin Valenta, Mallory Nees, Eric Loughlin, Amy Steele

  
BoHo Theatre presents
  
  
Striking 12
 
Book/Music/Lyrics by Brendan Milburn,
Rachel Sheinkin and Valeria Vigoda 
Directed by
Lara Filip
at
BoHo Theatre, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through Jan 8  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Striking 12 isn’t so much a musical as it is a rock concert with a dramatic flare. The self-aware holiday play is about a fake rock band that tells the tale of a lonely man on New Year’s Eve who in turn tells the tale of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl”. It’s a story within a story within a story, but thanks to the lack of complexity and depth given to each plot line, it’s never particularly difficult to follow.

Dustin Valenta, Amy Steele, Mallory Nees, Eric LoughlinThe play begins with a bit of self-referential comedy and audience interaction. The actors enter and launch into a song about overtures that describes the conventions of an overture. The "band" then informs us that they are all actors before breaking the fourth wall by getting a band name from the audience. (The night I went they were Purple Nurple.)

Eventually, a story emerges about a recently single man (Eric Loughlin) who is alone on New Year’s Eve. Rather than attend the party of his wild and crazy friend (Dustin Valenta), he decides to sit like a bump on a log in the confines of his apartment. He is then visited by a door-to-door saleswoman (Mallory Nees), who is peddling full-spectrum holiday lights that fight off the winter blues. He denies her the sale, but not before having a brief conversation about “The Little Match Girl.” This inspires him to read the short story, which then becomes the dominating plot line of the play.

When there is less than 90 minutes to flesh out several concentric plots, you know the story is going to be a little light. And Striking 12 certainly is lacking when it comes to a compelling through line. But that’s not really what this play is about. Written by three successful musicians/composers (Brendan Milburn, Rachel Sheinkin and Valerie Vigoda), the selling point is the music and the talent of the performers. This certainly is a demanding production in that the actors must not only be able to act effectively, but they must also be able to sing and play instruments as well. And each one of the performers in BoHo Theatre Company’s production certainly is a triple threat. Valenta can drum and sing simultaneously, which is no easy task. Amy Steele is a gifted violinist and vocalist, while Nees’ ability to play guitar, bass, ukulele and the squeezebox is impressive.

Dustin Valenta, Mallory NeesBut is this good theatre? The music is catchy and reminiscent of artists like Ben Folds. The humor is bland, but it has its moments. The problem is the story. How can you have a good play without a compelling story? Striking 12‘s plot feels like an afterthought, as if the writers tried to squeeze elements of story into the piece after the music had been completed. By the play’s end, you have a few songs stuck in your head but not much else.

Additionally, the BoHo Theatre’s space doesn’t have the acoustics for a show like this. Vocals are easily overpowered by the thumps of a bass drum or even the singing of violin strings. The audio quality is akin to a basement rock show. The piece would be better served in a more spacious venue where the band doesn’t almost sit on top of the audience.

If you’re in the mood for a holiday-themed rock show, Striking 12 is a decent watch. But if you’re looking for good theatre, you’re striking out.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Mallory Nees, Eric Loughlin, Amy Steele, Dustin Valenta

  
  

  
  

REVIEW: Hello Again (Boho Theatre Ensemble)

LaChuisa musical a sexy success for Boho

 

Adam Fane and Ben Burke 2 

 
Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Hello Again
 
Written by Michael John LaChiusa
directed by Michael Ryzcek and Stephen Rader
Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through May 1st (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

  I’m going to preface this review with a simple plea to all theater patrons: Please turn off your cell phones when you enter a theater. Nothing kills momentum like an iPhone going off at minute 85 of a 90 minute musical, so please just turn it off.

That being said, BoHo’s production of John Michael LaChiusa’s raunchy sex musical Hello Again can’t be stopped by pesky ringtones. The sexual exploits of ten characters are detailed in ten scenes that take place in a different decade of the 20th century, and LaChiusa adjusts the score to fit the period, creating a musical collage Tom McGunn and Adrianna Parson with styles ranging from opera to disco to bubblegum pop. Directors Michael Ryczek and Stephen Rader utilize the intimate (read: tiny) space exquisitely, navigating their ten actors without the stage ever seeming too crowded, a feat accomplished by making sure no one stays in one place for too long. The directors are aided by Stephen M. Genovese masterful set, which utilizes a wall of turning wooden panels to subtly suggest environments without requiring much room while also creating exits and entrances when needed.

The music begins and the company takes the stage with their best “come hither” looks, standing in silence before dissipating and leaving the audience with the patron saint of sexuality, Whore (Christina Hall). She greets wandering Soldier (Tom McGunn) with the show’s title number, setting off a series of erotic encounters that run the gamut of the sexual spectrum while retaining emotional intensity through LaChiusa’s revealing lyrics. As the characters get physical, the songs delve into their psyches, revealing the pains and pleasures of promiscuity but also the basic human need for affection, sexual or not.

The entire ensemble, musically directed by Nick Sula, has a great handle on the complicated score, but the women of the cast provide the most memorable performances. Bookending the production, Hall’s strong belt impresses, particularly considering the wide range of the opening number – but where she most excels is in capturing the character’s vulnerability, portraying a woman who lives a life of passion without intimacy. “Morally bankrupt” Young Wife (Erin Creighton) struggles to stay faithful to Husband (Kevin Bishop) as her sexual curiosity leads her into the arms of College Boy (Sean Knight), and Creighton switches between reluctance, glee, and regret as she becomes more engrossed in her torrid affair. Her song “Tom” is a highlight, a heartbreaking recount of a missed love connection at a restaurant that lingers on her mind while she has sex with Husband, and Creighton’s ability to sing in her higher register while remaining at a low volume makes the number all the more chilling.

Sean Knight and Adrianna Parson Tom McGunn and Christina Hall
Adam Fane and Ben Burke 1 Christina Hall and Robert Whorton 2

But when it comes to crazed unbridled sexuality, Nurse (Adrianna Parson) takes the cake. After being raped by Soldier, she transforms into a maniac that uses sex as a weapon. In the scene following with College Boy, she twists nipples and ties up wrists before stripping down and mounting her unsuspecting patient, singing mid-coitus, “Somebody took what was mine, I say that ain’t gonna do. I want a little bit, give me a little bit, I’m gonna steal a little bit of you.” The disturbing scene is made all the more effective by Parson’s fearlessness, and she turns in one of the raunchiest sex scenes I’ve seen on stage.

Actress (Heather Townsend) is the most technically spectacular of the bunch, and Townsend shows off her thunderous pipes with “Mistress of the Senator,” one woman’s frantic plea to keep her uninterested Senator (Robert Whorton) at her side. The song requires incredible diction and range, and Townsend shows fantastic control, attacking consonants to clarify the tongue twisting lyrics and breath control for miles.

Hello Again is a play about the needs we all share, sexual or emotional, and Bohemian Theatre Ensemble’s production doesn’t hold itself back. The dedication of the actors to the material translates to raw excitement on the stage, and when the company says goodbye in a round of “Hello again,” get ready to reach for the nightstand because you’re gonna want a cigarette.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Christina Hall and Robert Whorton 1

 

REVIEW: Vanishing Points (Point of Contention Theatre)

A bleak, melancholic and beautiful vanishing point

VPPress1

Point of Contention Theatre presents:

Vanishing Points

 

by Martin Jones
directed by Dan Foss
at Boho Theatre, 7016 N Glenwood
through March 20th  (more info)

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

When I entered the Boho Theatre to see Vanishing Points, there was music playing. It was the music of my generation. I recalled a world of wildly colorful polyester and music that exploded the mold of it’s own origins. Unaware, I was being drawn into the world of a normal family in Nebraska 1972 before the lights went down.

Point of Contention’s production of Vanishing Points by Martin Jones is a bracing and sometimes nightmarish ride through the psyche of those that survive horrific and seemingly meaningless violence. It is based on the true story of the Peak family of Grand Island, Nebraska of whom three members were murdered in their home before going to church. For anyone who has experienced the sudden loss of a family member, there are few ways to articulate what is left behind. That is what falls to the character of Beth played by Stacie Hauenstein. She is the prodigal daughter who returns from college with a long- haired boyfriend and no concrete plans. Her family wastes no time in expressing their disappointment.

This production is brilliant in the use of minimalism. The usual cyc wall backdrop is literally framed with impressionistic and stark projections hanging center stage. These are Beth’s memories as well as her present state of mind frozen in time and invaded by ghosts. The only other props are chairs and a stair railing. It is left to the cast to project the sense of everyday life and morals of the midwestern family and what happens when it is left behind.

Rick Levine and Annie Slivinski play the parents as salt of the earth, church- going folks. Their children say ‘yes sir’ and have toed the line until Beth comes home with Lenny played by Christopher Sanderson. Victoria Bucknell plays the role of kid sister Barbara with bratty perfection. This family has followed the rules and had full expectations of the American dream with a plant nursery business. The greenhouse is the rare solace in the drought stricken town for Beth. The last time she sees her father is at the greenhouse on what seems an ordinary day. The family leaves for church and she goes with Lenny on the back of his motorcycle for a trip down memory lane. The memories become endless and something from which Beth cannot escape.

VPPress2

Actors Hauenstein and Sanderson play off of each other well. It is especially tense in the New York scene when Lenny grows tired of being supportive. His anger and weariness with Beth’s mourning is shocking and very effective. Ms. Hauenstein manages to pull off a midwestern stoicism without falling into the damsel in distress stereotype. Hers is a performance with a perfect balance of paranoia, fear, and dreams fraught with despair.

Kudos to Ms. Slivinski for her dual role as Beth’s mother Carolyn and Peg who runs an artists colony in the mountains. Slivinski is haunting as the ghost of the mother still sounding off in disappointment from beyond the grave. The same phrases repeat over and over but with subtly increasing intensity. Although there is no special effects makeup, the image of a woman with a bullet wound in her face is made clear as Carolyn menaces Beth long after the tragedy.

Victoria Bucknell provides much needed comic relief – also in a dual role as little sister Barbara and as hippie con artist Vicki. Her portrayal of Vicki was spot on and hilarious. Once again, very few props other than a folding chair but there is patchouli and chicanery quite ably inferred for those who can remember the early 70’s.

Morgan Manasa plays the role of the other surviving sister Fran who lives in Evanston with her husband and son. Somehow her father expected her to go away and ‘live her own life’. When she returns for the funeral, she is more detached and pulled by her own unhappy circumstances. There is no home to return to in Nebraska and like so many women, she has married her father in that husband Gary (Mark E. Penzien), lays guilt on her for pursuing something other than home and hearth. Ms. Manasa plays the role of Fran with a dark sadness and admirable restraint. (I have seen her in more manic comic roles-most notably “The Wonder: A Woman Keeps A Secret” also produced by Point of Contention. This role was a jarring contrast, which she played with deftness and subtlety.) She and Mr. Penzien are heartbreaking as they portray a couple whose casualties stem as much from lost dreams as the tragedies back home.

Mr. Sanderson plays a seriocomic dual role as Lenny and as Caz the mountain man who wrangles snakes. His casual approach to violence echoed what may have happened to her family – much more could have been made of this character’s connection with the killer in Beth’s imagination. . What is called shocking by the media and people ensconced in normalcy is everyday stuff to those of a more atavistic nature.

A minus for the direction is that the dual role of Rick Levine as father Walter and Uncle Cliff is too much of a throwaway. Mr. Levine is good as the father but that is undercut by an almost identical performance as Cliff. It is made obvious that their lives followed an expectation of conformity however; the characters should have been more delineated.

This is difficult and tense material that Chicago theatre veteran Dan Foss has chosen to adroitly direct. The seamless action is wonderfully enhanced by the stark musical score by Peter Andriadis, with echoes of Phillip Glass if he had scored for Ingmar Bergman. Applause goes to costumer Erica Hohn who dressed the characters in wonderfully authentic period clothes. The bright colors and whimsical patterns makes the tragedy of the Peak family hit close to home. It’s as if the audience is looking at an old photo album of memories frozen in time – hopeful, but with a touch of rebellion.

As the play ended, I had a knot in my stomach. And when the lights came up, as the soundtrack of my childhood was playing on the speakers again, the knot in my stomach tightened even more, a combination of nostalgia and loss.

Vanishing Points is a very effective reminder of how people can be either consumed or numbed by tragedy. Was it really a shock that this seemingly random crime happened? Have we become inured to violence and to the dark side of humanity? Vanishing Points is a haunting remembrance of the connection that we all share.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

“Vanishing Points” runs through March 20th at the Boho Theatre @ Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood. Tickets can be purchased through BrownPaperTickets.com or by calling 312-326-3631.

REVIEW: I Am My Own Wife (Boho Theatre)

Peter Robel shows grace & poise in this exquisite one-man show

my-own-wife

Boho Theatre presents:

I Am My Own Wife

 

By Doug Wright
Co-Directed by Peter Marston Sullivan and Stephen M Genovese
Thru February 13th (ticket info)

Review by Aggie Hewitt

Watching a one-man show is as terrifying as watching Philippe Petit walk on a high wire between the Twin Towers. At any moment he can come crashing down, flailing and unstoppable, leaving the audience with a bloody mess that they never asked for. When someone chooses that kind of undertaking, they make an oath to their audience. They say, “I promise not to fall. I promise you I can do this.” A one-man show is dangerous. Not in an artsy way, where it’s so provocative that it’s very existence is dangerous, it’s dangerous because it can be so embarrassing. The actor has nothing to hide behind. Even with a spectacularly written show, like Doug Wright’s I Am My Own Wife is, no amount of great writing is going to stop an actor from becoming Tobias Funke if he derails mid-performance. Sometimes people go to the theater for a grown-up version of a rollercoaster: with every rise and fall of the actors ability one can feel their body tense with the fear of witnessing something truly shameful. That doesn’t happen at Boho Theatre, where Peter Robel, playing all the 35+ characters makes it all the way across the high wire, with such grace and poise that you will forget to be scared at all.

wife I Am My Own Wife was originally created by Doug Wright, with developmental help from Moises Kaufman and the actor Jefferson Mays. It explores the life of German transvestite Charlotte von Mahlsdorf as she survived both the Nazi and Communist regimes, and Doug Wright’s obsession with her. The play has that lovely, sad bookishness of a Moises Kaufman play, and his presence is felt in the narrative. The scenes taken from real transcripts of interviews between Doug and Charlotte have a documentary feel to them, a feeling that is almost academic. It’s Doug Wright’s love of learning about Charlotte, and not his love of Charlotte herself that makes this play an intellectual treat. The more you learn about Charlotte, the more you want to fact check yourself, to learn everything possible about this enigmatic character. When the lights come up at the end of the second act, the only thing you know for sure about Charlotte is that you want to learn more about her. What better way for a biographical piece to end?

All of this great writing would fall flat however if it were not being presented by a great actor. With something as audacious as a one-man show, the last thing you’d expect an actor to do is to take back seat to the story, but that is exactly what Peter Robel does in this performance. During the course of what must be an exhausting show, Peter Robel never once stops to let you see him working. His acting textbook pure; it’s as if Uta Hagen came down from heaven and instructed him in great storytelling. Since I assume she didn’t, a lot of credit probably goes to co-directors Peter Marston Sullivan and Stephen M Genovese.

The play works so well because even though Peter Robel’s performance is as amazing as watching a marathon runner pushing himself past normal human capacity for endurance, each choice that is made ultimately serves the play. The reason that this one-man show isn’t embarrassing is that it’s a great story, told by smart people. Every mind that went into this production, from Doug Wright to John Zuiker, who designed lovely and elegant set was focused on telling a simply and well-crafted story. This is a production that proves that when integrity is in the intentions, wonderful theater can be achieved.

Rating: ★★★★