Review: Rantoul and Die (American Blues Theater)

     
     

White-Trash angst in central Illinois…..a dark comedy

     
     

Francis Guinan and Kate Buddeke in American Blues Theater's 'Rantoul and Die'. Photo by Paul Marchese

  
American Blues Theater presents
   
Rantoul and Die
  
Written Mark Roberts
Directed by Erin Quigley
at Victory Gardens Richard Christiansen Theater (map)
through May 22  | 
tickets: $32-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Surely few things are more artistically satisfying than watching Francis Guinan on stage in full-frontal, scene-stealing, emotional-meltdown mode. The man can make knocking over a chair resonate with the power of a Shakespearian soliloquy. Okay, maybe that’s a little hyperbolic. But not much. Guinan is one of Chicago’s MVP’s of the theatrosphere, and he’s in excellent form with American Blues Theater’s staging of Rantoul and Die. As is the rest of the stellar cast in playwright Mark Roberts’ profane study of white trash angst in the flatland middle of nowhere.

Kate Buddeke and Cheryl Graeff in American Blues Theater's 'Rantoul and Die' by Mark Roberts. Photo by Paul MarcheseAt roughly 110 miles south of Chicago and half an hour or so outside of Champaign, Rantoul is the flyover territory of flyover territory. In Roberts’ largely plotless, utterly tasteless and immensely entertaining dark comedy, the denizens of Rantoul are likewise the sort of folk who one tends to overlook if not outright avoid. These are a breed of loud, ignorant mouth-breathers to whom political correctness is a foreign concept. They refer to the developmentally disabled as "mongoloid retards." The closest they get to fine dining is stopping in at the local Dairy Queen instead of using the drive-thru.

But this group is also, in the four person ensemble directed by Erin Quigley, oddly likable. They may be at the bottom of society’s ladder but on that lowest of rungs, there is a singular integrity. These are people who say precisely what they think – the filters that most of us use to smooth out the rough edges of our uglier inclinations are absent in this group. There’s an honesty to their no-class brawling and profanity, perverse to be sure, but also unvarnished and unafraid. When Rallis, as pasty-faced a middle-age mope as you’ll ever encounter, fails in his attempt at suicide, his best friend Gary (Guinan) gives him a harsh dose of extreme tough love in lieu of sympathy:

“Suicide is like jerking off in a salad bar,” Gary berates, “There’s no regard for the people left behind.” From there, his get-a-grip lecture really gets profane.

The woefully depressed Rallis, it must be noted, is played by Alan Wilder. For those keeping track, that means that half the cast of Rantoul and Die is comprised of Steppenwolf Theatre ensemble members. Wilder and Guinan have as long history, and their scenes together here have an ease, a depth and an effortless authenticity that only comes from years of working together. The women in the cast – Kate Buddeke as Rallis’ unhappy wife Debbie and Cheryl Graeff as Callie, Debbie’s manager down at the DQ – come from the storied ranks of the American Blues Theater. Together, the foursome is toxically effective.

Plenty happens in Roberts’ atmospheric tale, including a shooting that leaves one character brain dead (“Summabitch has deviled ham in his head”) about 40 minutes into the 90-minute piece. But plot isn’t the point here. Roberts’ peculiar, pungent brand of storytelling isn’t about a conventional arc so much as it is a portrait of a very particular demographic (although to be sure, each of the four characters are idiosyncratic individuals more than representatives of a type.)

     
Francis Guinan and Alan Wilder in American Blues Theater's 'Rantoul and Die' by Mark Roberts. Photo by Paul Marchese Francis Guinan and Kate Buddeke

The play works because the dialogue is so barbed-wire sharp and delivered with such deceptively effortless agility by Quigley’s ensemble. The filthy blue-collar rants of Debbie, Callie, Gary and Rallis are capsules of comedy as nasty and black as the black plague. Clearly, Rantoul is no place for those with a low tolerance for profanity, gruesomely violent imagery or extraordinarily vulgar sexual references.

As Rallis, Wilder is a quavering muddle of a whipped porch dog of a man, haplessly clinging to a wife who is beyond over him. As Rallis’ exasperated, long-out-of-love spouse, Buddeke is an evolving mixture of ruthlessness and regret. She also makes it clear that Debbie is a woman who is lonely and frustrated – and surprisingly vulnerable under all her toughness. Which brings us to Graeff, as the unnervingly cheerful Dairy Queen manager. She’s got a second act monologue that is both hair-raising in its horror-porn narrative and a sprightly testimony to the power of positive thinking and a sunny can-do attitude.

Given the lack of a plot and the jaw-dropping crudeness of the dialogue, you wouldn’t want Rantoul and Die to fall into the hands of amateurs. It takes a seasoned, top-tier group of artists to pull of something this tasteless with such brutal honesty. This production has that. One can only hope we see more of these ABT/Steppenwolf hybrids in the future.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Francis Guinan and Alan Wilder in American Blues Theater's 'Rantoul and Die' by Mark Roberts. Photo by Paul Marchese

 

All photos by Paul Marchese

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REVIEW: It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph! (American Blues Theater)

  
  

Feel-good theater with a sincere conscience

  
  

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American Blues Theater presents
   
It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!
   
Written by Philip Van Doren Stern
Directed by
Marty Higginbotham
at
Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
through Dec 31  |  tickets: $32-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

“There’s enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed.” That comment on the relativity of wealth is just one of many astonishing déjà vu moments in this old-Its A Wonderful Life - American Blues - Montage picturefashioned 1944 “live radio” broadcast of a soon-to-be-released Hollywood Christmas classic directed by the great Frank Capra. (That 1946 film, of course, went on to become, after Dickens’ parable and the Nativity, the most beloved Christmas story that America ever gave the world.)

Now it’s a worthy Chicago Christmas celebration in its own right. American Blues Theater gifts us with a pitch-perfect recreation of WABT’s Christmas Eve presentation of the story of one man’s salvation from suicide by a clumsy angel who wants to win his wings. This powerful blast from the past is performed in impeccably accurate 40s wigs and costumes by an unimprovable cast of Chicago pros at the collective peak of their careers. It’s feel-good theater with a conscience, not to mention a sing-along before and during the radio show and commercial jingles for local enterprises.

The story–about a bad bank (and slumlord/banker, Mr. Potter) that doesn’t “trust” or invest in its struggling community of Bedford Falls but is ready for a foreclosure whenever it needs a cash infusion–has never seemed so contemporary. An embattled savings and loan director, George Bailey (a bumptious and passionate Kevin R. Kelly) and his adoring and empowering Mary (Gwendolyn Whiteside) clearly make a difference in the world and for the folks around them–even, or especially, when times are hard. That’s when folks without health insurance or with heavy mortgages and bills need all the safety nets their neighbors can provide.

This difference that he makes, of course, George foolishly doubts and denies–until Clarence (incredibly deft John Mohrlein, who ranges from klutzy Clarence to vicious Mr. Kirby at the drop of a script page) shows him how Bedford Falls would have degenerated into Pottersville if George had never been born. The ripple effect, which means that no man is an island, has never been more gloriously depicted than in this reverse “Christmas Carol,” where Ebenezer/George discovers how his absence would be even more destructive to the world than his presence.

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All of this wonderful “Capra-corn” is presented in a seamless 90 minutes, with piano accompaniment by Austin Cook and ingenious Foley effects by Shawn J. Goudie. The nine-member ensemble deliver crowd noises, sound effects, songs and, above all, sincerity. The result is an authentic radio-days recreation that could pass for the real thing, but, even better, works perfectly as a play. It’s a wonderful show!

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

 

 

  
  

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REVIEW: Tobacco Road (American Blues Theater)

Exposing the underbelly of American poverty

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American Blues Theater presents
   
Tobacco Road
   
Written by Jack Kirkland
Directed by Cecilie Keenan
at Richard Christiansen Theatre, 2433 N. Lincoln (map)
thru June 20th  |  tickets: $32  |  more info

American Blues Theater’s production of Tobacco Road is like the very best kind of church. It’s the kind of experience that leaves one in a reverent state, even more aware of the plight of poverty in our nation as it still exists. The play is every bit as relevant today as it was when it was first presented in 1932.

31266_399309783929_90764368929_4039607_4702192_n Written by Jack Kirkland, based on the novel “Tobacco Road,” by Erskine Caldwell, is a stark and real look at the farmer supplanted by industrialism and left literally to starve on his own land.

At last I have seen a production of this play that stays true to the core of the novel, a very different take than John Ford’s 1941 film of the same name. The film was quite oddly played for laughs, and thankfully the production at American Blues Theater plays it for what it is: a moving and thorough description of poverty, ignorance, and superstition. During the first act, there was laughter from the audience, but the actors commanded, and by the end of the second act, the house was silent. The destruction of a family never fully realized was complete and there was nothing funny about it.

Directed with a strong and gentle hand by Cecilie Keenan, Tobacco Road shows us the unraveling of the white immigrant farmer through the magnifying glass of a modern world. Set in Georgia, lack of education and religious superstition are given center stage as we look at the near indigenous generation in the aftermath of the American industrial revolution. Keenan remains incredibly steady with a kind of driving force as she asks the question about the almost-indigenous whites in this country as to whether or not we can support them as they are. The director brings a fresh look at the immigrant, the white farmer, a new generation born here without choice, taking on the family farm without question. There is a sense of the tribal here that is clear; the bringing of cultural belief into a system of growing disregard for it’s heritage. Keenan lets us feel uncomfortable, and for a moment we laugh at ourselves, our own roots, and discover we are not very far removed from it’s origin. And then it gets serious. While, for reasons I cannot devise, this play is often thought funny, it simply isn’t. There is nothing ultimately humorous about starvation, bank seizures, or the kind of blind faith in religion that drives a family to ruin. However, it is only by this faith that the Lester family in Tobacco Road are diverted from crime. This is a deep and riveting idea that keeps these people on their land, without food, and unwilling to break the law to eat.

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Jeeter Lester, patriarch of the Lester family, is played by Dennis Cockrum with a quickness and lightness, never giving over to the maudlin, carrying this piece with a smooth energy and pace. It is through this character that we find the horrifying desperate measures of the impoverished, and we watch as he takes his daughter Pearl, beautifully played by Laura Coover hostage, in a final attempt at salvation.

Carmen Roman plays Ada, Jeeter’s wife, with the angry intensity of a woman who is starving, but clings to the very ideas that are coming through by way of industrialism. Her dress is faded and torn and she is worried she will be buried in rags, even while she longs for snuff to abate her hunger. Roman approaches this role with a hard flat consistency; a depiction of extreme hardship with humanity at it’s core. This is a woman who will protect young women from the men who bring harm. She sees how wrong these circumstance and conditions are and fights to her last breath to right them. Roman is a lion in this role.

Dude Lester, played by Matthew Brumlow, is only sixteen years old in Erskine’s novel. While Lester played this role with an unexpected wisdom and depth along with a loony sort of aplomb, he is far older than a teen. This is important because he ends up married to Bessie, played with appropriate efficiency and without pathos, by Kate Buddeke, a Christian preacher of a kind, who is thirty-nine years old. It is here that Erskine brings us the starkest of realities in the deep South. Bessie announces that God has approved this marriage and a license is purchased, the poorest of nuptials offered. This is no love story, but one of gross predator upon child that the script  doesn’t depict well. In the novel, Bessie has a pig’s nose; in looking at her, we are looking straight into her nostrils. The prosthetics by Steve Key, while admirable indeed, were not as fully realized as they could be. Even in a small house, they were not played out to the full extent needed to be effective. The work is very fine, but this is not film, and we do not have the benefit of close-ups.

31266_399309808929_90764368929_4039610_552485_nEllie Mae Lester, played by Gwendolyn Whiteside, is the heart of this piece. Born with a harelip, she is the young woman longing, damaged, beset, starving, and without typical beauty, frightened by the prospect of life without a husband for survival. Whiteside brings and eerie illness to this role. She writhes and floats, her physical command is impressive. She sits behind flat eyes, staring at a world that hates her on sight and she mourns.

I have rarely seen makeup so well done. Again, from Steve Key, the dirt, the squalor is incredibly smooth and believable. This is difficult to achieve, and the makeup is nearly a character in this piece, as it brings the very tone and color to a setting so necessary as to make this look into reality complete.

Tobacco Road brings us poverty as it is in the United States. Under this unwavering direction, we never get to look away from it’s crush of human life and spirit. I have spent time in Georgia, and this misery is still in play, every bit as striking as it is presented in this piece. This is theatre that does not seek to entertain, but to motivate. The director is Georgia born, and with her insight we leave the theatre informed about unspeakable living conditions that we never talk about, rarely see, and have made little attempt to repair as a nation.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
 

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