Review: Star Witness (House Theatre)

  
  

When bad scripts happen to talented people

  
  

Mary Redmon, Briana DeGiulio

      
The House Theatre presents
  
Star Witness
  
Written by Joe Meno
Directed by
Sean Graney
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 7  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Stories about young women that escape their mundane existences by embarking on fantastic journeys are fairly common in pop culture. Alice fell down the rabbit hole, Dorothy flew over the rainbow, and just this past weekend, the ladies of Sucker Punch retreated into videogame cut-scenes as an alternative to their imprisonment in an asylum. In Star Witness, the disappearance of a little girl sends Shelley (Briana De Giulio) on a surreal journey that teaches her to appreciate the world around her, no matter how dull it may be. Sean Graney directs a talented cast of actors, but Joe Meno’s script is a rushed, unfinished mystery that fails to captivate, with the characters never given a real chance to develop as the story races to its finish.

Briana DeGiulio, Chris MathewsThe play begins with kindergarten teacher Hazel (Mary Redmon) telling the audience a story about a wily fox and a huntsman as she prepares for a traditional evening of Chinese food, board games, and listening to a police scanner with Shelley. Hazel returns to the story throughout the show, but its connection to the mystery is strained, and slows down the momentum of the present action. After discovering the death of her bird Mr. Peepers and hearing a report of an 1126 – abandoned bicycle – on the police scanner, Hazel is in a volatile mood when Shelley comes home from work. Entering in a her powder blue waitress uniform (one of the many visual and thematic cues taken from “The Wizard of Oz”), Shelley talks about the troublesome day at work for her boyfriend Wayne (Chris Matthews) and herself, before discovering Mr. Peepers and being thrown into the same emotional chaos as her foster grandmother.

As more news comes in over the scanner, Hazel becomes infuriated with God, shouting and throwing down her Bible in rage at the prospect of young Jamie Mae being hurt, while Shelley begins to see an opportunity for the adventure she’d always wanted to have. As various members of the town enter their home, the audience is thrown a lot of exposition, and the hectic pace of the first act doesn’t give the characters much room to breathe. De Giulio and Redmon are given big dramatic moments that allow them to show off their acting chops, but the transitions within the scenes need to be much stronger. It seems as though Meno isn’t quite sure what kind of story he wants to tell. There’s not enough actual detective work to make it feel like a fully realized mystery, and the relationship aspects of the script aren’t developed well enough for it to stand alone as a story about a girl reconnecting with her absent mother by learning to value her small town existence.

Shelley’s monologue about her childhood wish to find a dead body disturbs because of De Giulio’s hauntingly raw delivery, but the moment feels sudden, and slightly inappropriate in the context of the scene. When Wayne comes over and tells Shelley that he plans on taking a job in Indiana, their relationship lacks appropriate definition for the moment to have a strong emotional resonance. It all generally moves much too fast, and when a pair of gym shoes Ghostare found with blood on them (red shoes are a motif throughout), Shelley hops on her bike and begins her journey to find Jamie Mae, signaling the end of act one before it really gets a chance to take off.

The first act of Star Witness takes place in the Chopin Theatre’s downstairs lobby, transforming the space into Hazel’s living room in an unorthodox move by Graney and set designer Lee Keenan. Once Shelley hops on her bike, the door to the main theater opens, revealing an ominous forest that serves as the setting for act two. It’s an ingenious way of involving the audience in a way that the script fails to do, literally forcing them to move into the world of the play. In the second act, Shelley encounters three men, with each one representing different relationships in Shelley’s life. The one-handed toy factory worker Bob Wyatt (Gary Simmers) is a connection to her mother, the flirty, sea monster costume clad Junior (Matthews) symbolizes her romantic relationships, and the creepy baby-mask wearing Norris helps Shelley appreciate her hometown.

The second act suffers from the same problems as the first, but there are some glimpses of what Star Witness could be with some reworking and polish, particularly the scene between Shelley and Junior. De Giulio and Matthews have great chemistry and their flirting is adorable, with Meno slowing down the pace and giving them an opportunity to explore their relationship. As cute as the scene is, though, it’s still a diversion from the main mystery, and Meno’s hectic pacing returns once Junior exits as the play sprints to its conclusion. The story is resolved with almost no investigation on Shelley’s part, which makes the preceding events feel rather pointless, and the rushed conclusion ends up having the same gravitas as a still shot of characters high-fiving at the end of a TV sitcom.

There is potential in Meno’s script, but Star Witness ultimately feels like a rough draft. The idea of a small-town murder mystery influenced byThe Wizard of Oz” is a fascinating one, and while the play does a passable job with the theme of Shelley wanting something fantastic in her life, the rest of the Oz references need to be more fully realized if they’re to be anything more than cosmetic. Thankfully, Graney knows how to get strong performances out of his actors, and his ensemble ultimately saves the show from disaster. In less capable hands, Star Witness would be dead on arrival.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
      
  

Mary Redmon, Gary Simmers, Briana DeGiulio

Star Witness continues at the Chopin Theatre (1543 W. Division) through May 7th, with performances Thursday-Saturday at 7:30pm, Sundays at 3pm. Tickets are $25, and can be purchased online or by calling 773-769-3832. More information is available at www.thehousetheatre.com

All photos by Michael Brosilow

           
           

REVIEW: The Hundred Dresses (Chicago Children’s Theatre)

   
  

Reducing childhood bullying one performance at a time

   
   

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Chicago Children’s Theatre presents
   
The Hundred Dresses
   
Written by Ralph Covert and G. Riley Mills
Directed by
Sean Graney
North Shore Center for the Performing Arts, Skokie (map)
through Dec 2   |  tickets: $26-$36  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh 

One in five students are bullied each year. 60% of students are bystanders to bullying*. Forty-five states, including Illinois, now have anti-bullying legislation. Bullying prevention programs have been shown to reduce school bullying by as much as 50%. To entertain and educate, Chicago Children’s Theatre remounts last season’s smash hit, The Hundred Dresses.

The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 008Peggy is rich. Wanda is poor. Maddie is somewhere in the middle. Clothing makes a fashion statement at Franklin Elementary School. Peggy is mean. Wanda is kind. Maddie is somewhere in the middle. The Hundred Dresses is a light-hearted musical dressed up to teach a powerful lesson. It’s theGlee” episode that harmonizes “Clueless” meets “Mean Girls”.

In their upbeat and high energy antics, these adult actors unleash the cute kid inside. Leslie Ann Sheppard (Maddie) is a shiny-happy sidekick to Natalie Berg’s (Peggy) self-absorbed diva. Berg balances over-the-top narcissism without becoming the villain. Berg charms in clueless oblivion. When she sings ‘you didn’t do anything wrong’ with perky sass, Sheppard’s soulful response ‘but I didn’t do anything right’ heightens in its profound simplicity. Sheppard’s subtle despair is a sweet awakening. The target of the teasing is Briana De Giulio (Wanda). De Giulio sings with hopeful pretend and a thick Polish accent. The interesting underlying story involves the overall acceptance of the other quirky playground kids. Andrew Keltz (Willie) is hysterical, arriving to school in various eccentric ensembles. Superman or robot, he doesn’t disguise his oddball ways that are just understood by the others. Elana Ernst (Cecile)is a tiara wearing, unicorn talking, ballerina wannabe. She looks and sounds like SNL alum, Cheri Oteri, with comedic timing and exasperated expressions to match. Geoff Rice (Jack) is the understated dreamer with a confident independence. The kids bond in a celebration of individuality.

Under the direction of Sean Graney and choreography of Tommy Rapley, the playful style is like a nursery rhyme game. It seems like it’s all fun and games until you really listen to the words. Jacqueline Firkins conjures up the perfect wardrobe to focus on dresses. The girls’ dresses are marvelously vibrant 50’s style. Watching the cast change it up, certainly promotes clothing envy. Is it the costumes? Is it the singing? Is it the dancing? Is it the cast? There are probably over 100 reasons to see The Hundred Dresses. The most important one is ‘because doing nothing is the worst of all.’ As grown-ups, we need to act to stop the bullying in schools. An easy and entertaining way is to take a kid or two (or a classroom!) to this production, which helps kids learn important life lessons in an entertaining way. Go see it!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
    
   

The Hundred Dresses plays Tuesdays through Fridays at 10:30 a.m; Saturdays and Sundays at 1p.m.    Running time is sixy minutes with no intermission. *Statistics about bullying from Newsweek Magazine, October 10 issue.

The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 006 The Hundred Dresses - Chicago Childrens Theatre 002

All press photos by Michael Brosilow

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REVIEW: Cherrywood (Mary-Arrchie Theatre)

Party on, Dude!

 

cherrywood

  
Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents
  
Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable
   
Written by Kirk Lynn
Directed by
David Cromer
at
Angel Island Theatre, 735 W. Sheridan (map)
through August 8th  |  tickets:  $13-$22  |  more info

reviewed by Katy Walsh

Fliers announce ‘Party Tonite for anyone who wants a change.’ Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents the Midwest premiere of Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable.  A foursome decides to host a party. They have three kinds of chips, an array of music, bottles of booze and a shots of… milk? In response to their fliers, the guests arrive and fill up the house. The usual party suspects are all present. Free loading crashers. Whiny girl. Depressed divorced guy. Unwanted neighbor. Gaggle of gals in bathroom line. P.D.A. couple on the dance floor. Hot shirtless guy. Person continually announcing ‘I’m wasted.’ Sporadic drunken wrestling. It feels, looks and sounds familiar except with a couple of twists: Somebody brought a gun. Everybody has been drinking wild wolves’ milk. People are opening boxes of their secret desires. Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable is a virtual reality party experience without the pressure to mingle or the aid of a cocktail.

In a large living-room-like space, the audience seats encircle the action. Closely matched in numbers, the 50+ wallflowers watch the 49 performers party. It’s such a tight fit that I needed to move my purse before a guy sat on it. Director David Cromer has gone fire-code-capacity to create an authentic party.

The proximity blurs the fourth wall completely in deciphering between the party gawkers versus goers. I consciously refrain from shouting out an answer to ‘name a good band that starts with the letter ‘A’.’ It seems like a jumbling of improv mixed in with scripted lines. Crediting playwright Kirk Lynn with some of the best lines, it’s existentialism goes rave with the ongoing philosophy ‘if you want something different, ask for it.’ Lynn writes dialogue describing cocktail banter as ‘question-answer-it-doesn’t-always-happen-like-that’ mockery. One character describes herself with ‘everything I do is a form of nodding. I want to break my neck to stop nodding.’ In a heated exchange, the neighbor jabs, ‘you remember the world? It’s the room outside the door.’ It’s genuine party chatter. Some conversations are playful. Some are deep. Some just don’t make any sense. Clusters of people are sharing philosophical drunken babble throughout the room. A gunshot brings the house of strangers together in a communal bonding alliance.

For the theatre goer looking for a break from classic plot driven shows, Cherrywood: The Modern Day Comparable is performance art. It is a ‘Party Tonite for anyone who wants a change.’ For those who wonder what Chicago actors and designers do off-season, this is an opportunity to fly-on-the-wall it. If you’ve anticipated they hang out together and party, this would be your imagined drunken haze. The who’s who of storefront theater is boozing it up. It’s a Steep, Lifeline, Dog & Pony, House, Griffin, etc. reunion bash, and man do they know how to party!

  
   
Rating: ★★★
       
    

Running Time: Ninety minutes with no intermission

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Review: American Theatre Company’s “Yeast Nation”

 A Mucking Good Time

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American Theatre Company presents:

Yeast Nation

by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann
directed by PJ Paparelli
runs through October 18th (ticket info)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

Yeast Nation is an innovative musical production unlike anything I have ever seen before. Greg Kotis (a veteran of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists) and Mark Hollmann (a veteran of Chicago Theatre Building’s Musical Theatre Workshop), the same creators of the Tony-winning musical Urinetown, tell a provocative story about the creation of life based on an absurd premise of single celled yeasts living in a primordial soup. There are no  stories of life before these yeasts; these yeasts are the beginning of time.

yeast-nation-3These vocally gifted yeasts are living under the dictatorial rule of the Elder (Joseph Anthony Foronda), he being the yeast that produced all other yeasts. They are starving yet the Elder forbids them to rise to the top where plenty of nourishing food is available. The Elder believes that his oppression is for the good of all yeasts and life as a whole. He even kills a yeast (Sweet yeast’s father) for disobeying him and eating from the top of the liquid surroundings. The Elder’s son Second (Andrew Keltz), the second in command, sees no sense in his fathers orders. He ventures off to discover and take advantage of all the wonderful things available near the top, such as delicious fulfilling muck. He promises Sweet (the name of the sweet yeast) a new world, not knowing what lies ahead. Second’s engulfment of muck results in the birth of a fantastic pink creature (Stephanie Kim), sparking the beginning of the progress to a new multi-celled organism.

Do not be alarmed if none of this makes any sense – the creators were aware of their own craziness in the foundation of their story and the even more incredible plot. In the beginning I was getting a little nervous as I had no idea what was going on, and then the scary-eyed grey-haired yeast (Barbara Robertson) poked fun at how weird it is to believe in a story about yeasts. Throughout the play the creators slide in small little jokes recognizing the lack of believability and completely insane premise of a society of single-celled yeasts. This is theatre, not school. Have some fun with it.

Each scene is filled with graphic sexual innuendos hidden in Kotis and Hollmann’s brilliant writing. Though tempted to share with you some of these tastefully shocking lines, I would not want to ruin the experience of the live delivery. Considering the depth of this unordinary script and lyrics, I am looking forward to discovering the jokes that were intelligently hidden beyond my comprehension the first time seeing the performance.

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There is no distinct set on stage. The scenery is composed of purple lights hanging from the ceiling and rafters creating Disney-like prehistoric stars. The stage is cluttered with scaffolds and equipment displaying the result of a Broadway-style performance being compressed into the small storefront space of American Theatre Co. This design allows for the yeasts to utilize a variety of heights and abstract placements on the stage, providing the sense of a large production cramming itself into the small set.

The lighting and special effects add the change in atmosphere to each various style of song. The musical variety in this bizarre tale includes a little bit of everything. The style of each song had its own vibe from a tune sang at a church choir, downtown disco, a rock concert, Christian rock, Gospel, rock video and more. I am pretty sure they did a parody of Meatloaf’s music video for “I Would Do Anything for Love.”

Before I even had an idea of what was going on in the plot, I already felt I was watching the beginning of a spectacular new musical. The confusion is part of the fun. The costumes were a little hokey, but the quality of talent on stage combined with the unique incomparable writing by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann is a combination for success. Go see the birth of the next hit musical that you cannot believe someone could imagine to produce.

Rating: «««½ 

Playing at American Theatre Company, 1909 W. Byron, Chicago, IL, Thursdays & Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays, through October 18, 2009.

 

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