REVIEW: Odradrek (House Theatre)

  
  

House Theatre finds its groove

  
  

Odradrek by Brett Neveu - House Theatre of Chicago - music Josh Schmidt - director Dexter Bullard

  
House Theatre of Chicago presents
  
Odradrek
 
Written by Brett Neveu
Music by
Josh Schmidt
Directed by
Dexter Bullard
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through March 5  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The House Theatre of Chicago isn’t known for their gloominess. They often dip into darker subjects, especially death (Dave DaVinci Saves the Universe, The Nutcracker our review ★★★½), sometimes drugs (All the Fame of Lofty Deedsreview ★★★), and, once, children killing each other with metaphorical handguns (Girls Vs. Boysreview). Their newest offering, Odradek, a riff on Kafka via Brett Neveu, is easily the bleakest story I’ve seen by the puckish group. The promotional material compares the play to Hitchcock, and in a semi-disclaimer, artistic director Nathan Allen warns that the “show is scary.” I firmly believe that the hardest emotion to evoke in an audience is not glee, or sadness, or despair, but fear. To be honest, Odradek never really scared me. And it’s not very Hitchcockian; it feels more like “Saw” meets Beverly Cleary.

Odradrek by Brett Neveu - music Josh Schmidt - director Dexter BullardThe play is beautifully realized by designers Collette Pollard and Lee Keenan. The play works best when seen as performance art, not a intellectual venture. Neveu and Dexter Bullard, two newcomers to the House, want this play to be both a tragically complex story and a macabre poem. They can’t nail down either. Neveu’s language is delightfully lyrical, but it doesn’t make for a coherent piece of drama. Realities, fantasy, and hallucination are blurred and the three characters’ motivations are convoluted. However, the show still takes the audience on a ride in true House style.

The play centers around a Boy (Joey Steakley), who comes from a broken, but not abusive, home. He lives with his Father (David Parkes), who enters into an ethically-questionable romance with the Boy’s Doctor (Carolyn Defrin). The Boy, on the other hand, enters into a relationship with a monster that lives under the stairs, Odradek. Slowly, the Boy slips down a path of confusion and self-mutilation.

The plot has a few holes, which I’ll wager are intentional. The Doctor is pretty clearly a primary care physician, and the Boy very clearly requires some facetime with a psychologist. The Boy’s wounds provided another puzzle, because it wasn’t clear if they were imagined or actual. As the play progresses, the grip on reality loosens and every aspect of the story comes into question.

The Boy’s affliction is linked to his parent’s divorce, but not much is explained. Neveu relies heavily on images, metaphors, and anecdotes for mood, but none of these provide stakes for the Boy. Colors are especially important—the Doctor asks the Boy what color his mother’s eyes are, while Odradek quizzes him about the hues of blood and sinew. But these tangents don’t explain why he misses his mom or why he chooses to hurt himself.

Even with the stylistic clashes, the cast handles the play well. Parkes’ performance is fascinating to watch in his House debut. He gives the Father a gritty, Chicago-style treatment that isn’t found in many House shows. Defrin, always a pleasure, plays against him decently, even though she’s more presentational. Steakley comes off zombiefied in a challenging role, and his age is very hard to pinpoint (I sort of figured he was around 25 but still living at home). He hits astride as his story unravels.

Infusing the company with new blood this season is a truly refreshing idea. In recent years, the House seemed to be stumbling at times. Odradek is a worthy venture and dives into territory that the company had successfully plunged into in the past. But it lacks heft. The play doesn’t reveal much about mental illness, divorce, or a connection between the two. Its value lies in how it strikes the ear, the eye, and the soul – not the mind.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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REVIEW: The Nutcracker (House Theatre)

     
     

Rediscover the whimsical genius of House Theatre

     
     

The Nutcracker - House Theatre Chicago

   
House Theatre presents
   
The Nutcracker
   
Adapted by Jake Minton and Phillip C. Klapperich
Music by
Kevin O’Donnell 
Directed by
Tommy Rapley
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through Dec 26  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

If there is a theatre company in town that has a corner on childlike whimsy for adults, it would be the House, hands down. Every production they put up is sure to have flashy, comic book-style visuals, a frenetic, cartoony energy from the actors, and plenty of gags. And lately (although I wasn’t able to see the season opener, Thieves Like Usour review ★★½), their work has been falling flat on it’s face. For example, last season’s Girls vs. Boys (our review ★½), a musical that was supposed to reveal the dark underbelly of the American teen, was a generic, loud, overdramatic hormone pile.

NutcrakerPoster copyThey may have recaptured their groove that made Chicago love ‘em, though. With The Nutcracker (an adaptation of E.T.A. Hoffman’s classic story penned by Housers Jake Minton and Phillip Klapperich, first produced in 2007 at the Steppenwolf Garage), there’s a delicious blend of fun and heart. They also throw in fistfuls of that whimsical House magic that has you leaving the Chopin full of childish wonder. The show is easily the best thing I’ve seen there.

The story is a distant cry from Tchaikovsky’s ballet, by far the best known adaptation of Hoffman’s short story “The Nutcracker and the Mouse King.” Minton and Klapperich tinker with the classic story to make it a much more personal tale, eschewing the sugarplum fairies for familial conflict. The play focuses on the relationship between Clara (Carla Kessler) and her brother Fritz (Chance Bone), who dies on the battlefield one Christmas Eve and then comes back, reincarnated as a nutcracker by Uncle Drosselmeyer (Blake Montgomery). Of course, the fantasy is still front and center. The whole play follows Clara and the nutcracker’s battle against the rats for Christmas. They are aided by other playthings hobbled together in Drosselmeyer’s workshop, including Hugo (Joey Steakley), a robot; Phoebe (Trista Smith), a pull-string doll; and Monkey (Michael E. Smith), a francophone sock monkey. Together, they attempt to make cookies, fend off rats, chop down a tree, and bring Christmas back to the house left joyless by Fritz’s death. Clara’s mother and father (Carolyn Defrin and Minton, respectively) are not amused by Clara and Drosselmeyer’s antics, believing the two are opening a barely-scabbed wound. Tension pervades the entire piece. We’re wondering if Clara and her family will move past Fritz’s untimely demise, or if Clara will delude herself into thinking the nutcracker is an appropriate substitute. It’s a remarkably smart, unpredictable, and complex conflict for a group known for spectacle. And it’s much more refreshing than another traipse around Candyland.

The cast has a seemingly endless supply of energy. The always great Defrin, for example, leaves as the depressed and angered Martha just to quick change and pop back in as a nefarious rat. The petite Kessler bursts with the energy of a twelve-year old. The best part is the motley crew of toys, especially Smith, who, donning the monkey costume, is the funniest one in the show.

Kevin O’Donnell’s compositions do a great job of implying a Christmas feel without repeating overplayed Christmas carols (the British accented rats even due a Clash tribute). However, the complete Americanization and contemporizing of the story was unnecessary for me. Although it leads to some great jokes (e.g., pizza bagels), the story begs to be more timeless. There were also a couple of plot gaps that the audience sort of swallows along with the show.

The Nutcracker had some absolutely brilliant moments—one being the magical transition from inside to outdoors and the other being the terrifying Rat King (something that gave me a nightmare or two). With this show, the House finds the perfect content to match their style. Let’s hope they keep it up.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

NutcrakerPoster copy

 

Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m., with matinee performances at 3pm on Friday November 26, Saturday, November 27, and Friday, December 24, plus additional 8pm performances on Wednesday, November 24 and Wednesday, December 22. There are no performances on Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day, and there is no evening performance on Christmas Eve. The Nutcracker plays at the Chopin Upstairs Theatre 1543 W. Division St., Chicago). Regular tickets are $25 and $10 for students/industry at the door. The Nutcracker is The House’s holiday show and is not included with The House’s 2010/2011 season subscription (but subscribers do receive $5 off all tickets). Tickets may be purchased by calling (773) 769-3832 or online at www.TheHouseTheatre.com.

     
     
House theatre - The Nutcracker House theatre - The Nutcracker
     
     

REVIEW: To Kill a Mockingbird (Steppenwolf Theatre)

 

Talented cast tells a timeless story

 

 

   
Steppenwolf Theatre presents
   
To Kill A Mockingbird
   
Dramatized by Christopher Sergel
Based on the novel by Harper Lee
Directed by
Hallie Gordon
at
Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted (map)
through November 14  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

In David Mamet’s “Three Uses of the Knife, his non-fiction book on the art of playwriting, he describes his detest for plays that set out to soapbox. In his view, works that preach a message selfishly leave the audience out of the discussion. For if the spectator isn’t given the opportunity to provide his own interpretation of the work, isn’t it propaganda and not art?

But David Mamet’s word isn’t scripture. And there’s no question that To Kill a Mockingbird has artistic merit, especially in its current staged incarnation produced by Steppenwolf for Young Adults.

Yes, the story is pretty straightforward and provides little moral conflict for today’s audiences. We know from the beginning we are supposed to side with the stately Samaritan Atticus Finch (Philip R. Smith), and root against the slackjawed, pitchfork-toting townsfolk. We know that Tom Robinson (Abu Ansari) is innocent beyond a reasonable doubt and that Scout (Caroline Heffernan) is going to be as feisty as she is precocious.

So ethical dilemmas and non-archetypical characters aren’t To Kill a Mockingbird’s strong points. But the piece stands as an important historical drama, a reminder that although we live in a nation where everyone is created equal, some are more equal than others.

Of equal importance is the fact that the play offers up some really outstanding roles for young actors. And Steppenwolf’s stellar cast does not disappoint. Heffernan brings to the role of Scout a Punky Brewster tomboy quality that is tough without sacrificing cuteness. Zachary Keller nails Dill’s Alabama droll. Claire Wellin (who I last saw in Profile Theatre’s amazing production of Killer Joe) delivers an emotionally charged performance as Mayella Ewell, the young woman alleging rape. She is certainly an actress to watch.

Director Hallie Gordon conveys the smallness of Maycomb, Ala. by relying on a compact set that stays stationary throughout the production. The Finch’s home is steps from the Radley’s, which is only steps from Mrs. Dubose’s. This helps intensify the rising action of the play, as we can better sense the proximity of the danger that threatens Atticus and his family.

If you want to introduce your children to drama, Steppenwolf’s To Kill a Mockingbird is a good start. Most seventh and eighth grade children have already read the book, so it’s safe to say the content is age appropriate for young teenagers. However, younger children may find the themes of murder and rape to be too adult.

For top-notch child talent and a timeless story, go see the Steppenwolf’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Performances run October 12 – November 14, 2010 in Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Street.  Weekday matinees (Tuesdays – Fridays at 10 am) are reserved for school groups only, with weekend (Friday evening, Saturday and Sunday) performances available to the public.

 

 

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REVIEW: Wilson Wants It All (House Theatre of Chicago)

A smart show about an unlikely future

 

Ruth as Hope 1st Speech sharper

The House Theatre of Chicago presents

Wilson Wants It All

By Michael Rohd and Phillip C. Klapperich
Conceived and directed by Michael Rohd
At the
Chopin Theatre, West Town Through March 27 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

"The hard times, the drought…. A shortage so awful that private toilets eventually became unthinkable. A premise so absurd…”

Whoops! Wrong show. That’s from Urinetown, a smart, snappy musical comedy about a dystopian, near-future Hope and Mer w. Wilson on screenAmerica so plagued by overpopulation, water shortages and political upheaval that the government has banned private plumbing. Whereas in the play we’re supposed to be talking about, House Theatre’s Wilson Wants It All — a smart, snappy drama about a dystopian, near-future America plagued by overpopulation, water shortages and political upheaval — the government is working toward a ban on private procreation.

While a musical can get away with an absurd premise, when a drama predicts the near future, it needs basis in present-day facts. U.S. population growth, according to the Census Bureau, is "projected to decrease during the next six decades by about 50 percent." So you can’t credibly blame America’s economic woes on overpopulation, let alone create a crisis so severe that it could lead within 30 years to government-mandated birth control.

This might have been explained away — as, say, the result of a deliberate misinformation campaign, overpopulation as the weapons of mass destruction of 2040 — but it wasn’t. At the outset, then, suspension of disbelief suffers a blow, and the plot continues to batter at it until it unravels fully at play’s end.

Outside of the storyline, though, "Wilson" is a very fine piece of staged science fiction. The grim future world that Michael Rohd, artistic director of the Sojourn Theatre in Portland, Ore., sets out as director so trumps the plot he and The House’s Phillip C. Klapperich have conceived as playwrights that we spend most of Act I delighting in the set, properties and staging.

2 Hopes and Meredith News folks and Wilson

The audience comes in to a clean bare set arranged with six floor-to-ceiling white screens. Both live-action and recorded video intersperse with the staged scenes in fluid and imaginative ways, such as a horrifying interactive billboard that analyzes and reacts to individual consumers. These aren’t new concepts — authors like Frederik Pohl and Harry Harrison wrote about them in the 1960s — yet with many clever details Collette Pollard, the scenic designer, and Lucas Merino, the video designer, ingeniously extrapolate from contemporary devices to show us their terrifying technological future.

We also see some skilled performances. As a kind of Greek chorus of vapid media commentators, Joe Steakley, Elana Elyce, Maria McCullough, Emjoy Gavino, Abu Ansari and Michael E. Smith are right on target, timed to the instant, and add welcome lightness to the play. Wilson in elevator

Some other details of the script work very well, too. America is fragmented into seven political parties. Hardly anyone uses surnames. Most of the characters act younger than their ages. It’s the bigger picture and the major plot lines that don’t make sense.

In Act I, we meet the sprightly Leslie Frame as Ruth: unemployed, 30 years old, and hoping to make a difference in her world. A wan Carolyn Defrin plays her fond, worried but rather naively unworldly mother, Meredith, and Edgar Miguel Sanchez boyishly portrays her earnestly political but inept and — it proves — fickle boyfriend, Remy.

At the other end of the scale, Rebekah Ward-Hays determinedly plays Hope, also 30, the orphaned daughter of a charismatic senator assassinated on the day of her birth. Wilson, the senator’s keen political strategist, laconically portrayed by John Henry Roberts, has been grooming Hope all her life to step into her father’s shoes. An army of aides, headed by Bryan (Kevin Crowley), stand ready to meet her every need. She’s America’s darling, its dream of delivery, and now it’s her time to come forward.

Yet Hope’s not so sure she wants the life Wilson has in store for her. And at the moment of decision, she discovers her Doppelgänger. This futuristic, feminine remake of "The Prince and the Pauper" has potential; the ultimate unveiling of Ruth, Hope and Meredith’s relationship, though tawdry and predictable, has roots in real-life situations.

But by the second act, when the charm of the stagecraft has begun to wear off, revelations of decades-long unrealized love, selfless conspiracy and the ultimate solution ring untrue.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

 

Review: "The Sparrow" at House Theatre

The_Sparrow1-small Only in the world of Chicago theatre can you find such an exciting artistic organization like The House Theatre. Now in its fourth season, The House has energized the city’s theatre audience, creating a huge following of 20-somethings that might not have otherwise gone to theatre. The company never fails to push the theatrical envelope through the combination of artistry, multi-media, and aggressive and ingenious fun – which explains their reward of consistently sold-out performances.

There are two definitive reasons for the success of The House. First of all, they only present new works that are written through a collaboration of members of the company and the actors of the play itself, and it is evident that this creative style empowers the actors and production team so that each member completely engrosses themselves into each production, sweeping the audience with them. Secondly, and most important, the fare that the company creates for their loyal audience is consistently an artistically exuberant experience. It combines engaging video and original music along with pure athleticism and inspiring energy, leaving one’s senses pleasantly exhausted by the end of each show.

In regards to these two points, House Theatre’s newest work, The Sparrow, does not disappoint. The play follows Emily Book (imagine a combination of Stephen King’s Carrie and Wicked’s Elpheba), who has the unexplained power of flight (among other things), earning her the nickname of “Sparrow”. Emily Bock (believably played by Carolyn Defrin), was the lone survivor of a school bus crash in the town of Spring Farms, IL, when she was four, after which she was quickly whisked away to a Catholic boarding school. Now, at age 17, she has come back to Spring Farms, where she has been taken in by Joyce (Evie Sullivan) and Albert (Jonathan Simpson) McGuckin, whose daughter had been killed in the same bus accident. At Emily’s new school, her school counselor, Dan Christopher (charmingly played by Cliff Chamberlain), takes Emily under his wing, introducing her to all of the students, including the school’s class president and cheerleading captain, Jenny McGrath (an enthusiastic Paige Hoffman). Emily’s powers are discovered at a basketball game, when Jenny, during a cheerleading stunt, ends up precariously hanging from a banner high above the gym. Emily flies up and saves her. Through some surprising turn of events surrounding a school dance, the overall arc of The Sparrow is completed, and the play comes to a jarring but satisfying end (fyi: the show will no doubt be the first in a series).

SpringFarm1-smallThe director (the highly-gifted Nathan Allen) and artistic team have come up with some brilliant scene changes and interludes, including a performance in the bio-chemistry lab by the teacher and a host of singing dissected pigs, (singing and big-band-dancing to a Frank Sinatra tune), and a basketball game that is infused with some fun, acrobatic cheerleading and MTV-influenced dancing.

Special kudos must be made to the music and sound design teams: Kevin O’Donnell, Mike Przygoda, Jeremiah Chiu, Michael Griggs and Phil Canzo. Kevin O’Donnell has composed a remarkable score for this play. The music in this work plays a huge role in the telling of the story, and Mr. O’Donnell will no doubt go far in the field.

The Sparrow - pulling the bullet out of teacher's chest There are a few weaknesses in the show, mostly surrounding some missing storyline and the development of the character of cheerleader Jenny McGrath. Although The Sparrow takes place in a make-believe world, there still needs to be some believability in what motivates the characters, and in Jenny’s there is no fore-shadowing to explain the events of the second act.

Nonetheless, if you have not been to a production at The House, you should make plans to sit among the audience as soon as you can. You will have to venture westward-ho of the main theatre districts, but the short jaunt to Belmont and Western is well worth it.

Rating: ★★★½