Review: MilkMilkLemonade (Pavement Group)

  
  

Gender bending, ribbon dancing and talking chickens

  
  

Matt Farabee as Emory and Cyd Blakewell as Linda in Pavement Group's production of MilkMilkLemonade, a comedy by Joshua Conkel. Photo by Joel Moorman.

  
Pavement Group presents
  
MilkMilkLemonade
 
Written by Joshua Conkel
Directed by Cassy Sanders
at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

MilkMilkLemonade, Pavement Group‘s newest theatrical undertaking, has all the conventions of a children’s play. You have the highly animated narrator, talking animals, a chintzy cardboard set, a slide whistle and heaping handfuls of scenery chewing. But the adult comedy is far from kid’s stuff. The play also features exposed mock penises, an Andrew Dice Clay impression and a little boy ribbon dancing to Nina Simone. It’s in the clashing of these two genres, the traditional children’s play and the bawdy adult comedy, where the piece mines much of its humor.

 Matt Farabee as Emory and Jessica London-Shields as Elliot in Pavement Group's production of MilkMilkLemonade, a comedy by Joshua Conkel. Photo by Joel Moorman.And there certainly is a lot of humor. MilkMilkLemonade is a riot, thanks in no small part to the extraordinarily talented and committed cast. And although the play lacks an emotional depth that would raise it to a four-star level, it’s not really about thought provocation. The goal here is campy comedy on par with the likes of Charles Busch or a British panto. And in this respect, it succeeds.

The cheekily named play is about a young farm boy named Emory (Matt Farabee) who, despite his conservative surroundings, harbors fabulous dreams of singing, dancing and stardom. He is not at all modest or shy when flamboyantly proclaiming his desires to be rich and famous or when practicing his Bob Fosse-inspired routines.

Unfortunately, being effeminate in rural America isn’t easy. Emory is the focus of ridicule among his peers, including neighbor Elliot (Jessica London-Shields). Elliot is a rough-and-tough ragamuffin who unknowingly serves as host to an evil parasitic twin. Despite Elliot’s public harassment of Emory, he hides a secret affection.

Emory is looked after by his Nanna (John Zinn), a salt-of-the-earth chicken farmer who is dying of cancer. Although her maternal love for Emory is unquestionable, she worries about his sensitivity and softness.

Meanwhile, Emory has a lone confidant—a giant talking chicken named Linda (Cyd Blakewell). Like Emory, Linda too has dreams that reach beyond the farm. She wants to be a comic. Will she live to see her big break, or will she be the feature attraction on a dinner plate?

The play’s humor shines through because of the brilliance of its performers. Farabee does an excellent job countering Emory’s boyhood innocence with his lustful sultriness. Blakewell embodies the Liza Minnelli, messy best friend archetype, while Zinn brings down the house with just the mere pronunciation of the word "chickens" (he pronounces it as "chickowns"). London-Shields evokes the most emotional depth by infusing real compassion into her portrayal of a sexually confused adolescent. And Sarah Rose Graber—who fills a number of roles including the narrator and who previously showed off her acting chops in Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s The Book of Liz (our review)—continues to display an energy and innate sense of comedy that makes her one of the finest comedic actresses in Chicago.

     
 John Zinn as Nanna in Pavement Group's production of MilkMilkLemonade, a comedy by Joshua Conkel. Photo by Joel Moorman.  Cyd Blakewell as Linda, with Matt Farabee, Jessica London-Shields and Sarah Rose Graber as judges in Pavement Group's production of MilkMilkLemonade, a comedy by Joshua Conkel. Photo by Joel Moorman.
Jessica London-Shields as Elliot and Matt Farabee as Emory in Pavement Group's production of MilkMilkLemonade, a comedy by Joshua Conkel.  Photo by Joel Moorman. Pictured front to back: Matt Farabee as Emory, Cyd Blakewell as Linda and Sarah Rose Graber as Lady in a Leotard in Pavement Group's production of MilkMilkLemonade, a comedy by Joshua Conkel. Photo by Joel Moorman.

Director Cassy Sanders certainly had her work cut out for her. The script is manic. Monologues interrupt scenes, the narrator breaks the fourth wall and wacky scenarios are paired with serious subject matter. Sanders reins everything in to create a cohesive piece that has a definite arch and a quick pace. However, I would like to see a little more fluctuation in the tone. Sanders passes up a few opportunities for emotional vulnerability that could create added depth to the production.

I also wish the playwright’s biography was listed in the program. Young New York-based playwright Joshua Conkel penned the play, which garnered several accolades, including an award for Best Off-Off Broadway Show in 2009 by New York Press. MilkMilkLemonade evidences Conkel’s strong voice, whimsy and unique sense of humor.

If you’re in the mood for a queer campy comedy, you can’t go wrong with MilkMilkLemonade. Although it’s in the style of a children’s play, the production’s adult humor is not for kids. Yet, its message of self-love is suitable for all ages.

  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  
Matt Farabee as Emory in Pavement Group's production of MilkMilkLemonade, a comedy by Joshua Conkel. Photo by Joel Moorman. John Zinn as Nanna and Matt Farabee as Emory (holding Starlene) in Pavement Group's production of MilkMilkLemonade, a comedy by Joshua Conkel. Photo by Joel Moorman.

All photos by Joel Moorman.

Featuring Cyd Blakewell, Matt Farabee, Sarah Rose Graber, Jessica London-Shields & John Zinn

     
     

REVIEW: The Water Engine: An American Fable (Theatre 7)

  
  

Suspenseful Mamet play recalls 1930s Chicago

 
 

Cassy Sanders, Brian Stojak and Dan McArdle in Water Engine - Theatre Seven

   
Theatre Seven presents
 
The Water Engine: An American Fable
   
By David Mamet
Directed by Brian Golden
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
Through Dec. 19  | 
Tickets: $12–25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Set in Chicago in 1934, David Mamet’s rarely mounted 1977 drama, The Water Engine: An American Fable, currently in a beautifully nuanced production by Theatre Seven, takes us back in time to the Century of Progress World’s Fair. Charles Lang, a punch-press operator in a factory by day, dreamy inventor by night, has created an engine that runs on pure water. He dreams it will put an end to factories and bring him a peaceful life in the country with his unworldly sister.

Brett Lee in Water Engine - Theatre SevenChicago history buffs, alternate-history fans and anyone who enjoys great, intimate theater should take this show in. While it’s set too late to be steampunk, this arguably science-fictional play has a similar feel. Brenda Windstead’s 1930s costumes and John Wilson’s sound-stage set transport us to another time, one that almost-but-not-quite existed.

But "autres temps, autres moeurs" does not apply here. In fact, it’s business very much as usual. In his effort to patent his invention, Lang runs afoul of a scheming shyster who tries to sell him and his creation into nefarious corporate hands. I don’t doubt that many would-be world-shaking discoveries meet similar fates today.

Although the plot is stridently black and white, it’s also edge-of-the-seat suspenseful, and Mamet brings in all sorts of fascinating sidelines, such as a recurring theme about a chain letter, period-style advertising and the world’s fair itself. The action cris-crosses Chicago, from the fairgrounds to still-extant spots such as the Aragon Ballroom and Bughouse Square.

Mamet originally wrote this short script, which runs about 80 minutes without intermission, as a radio play, and Director Brian Golden’s exciting staging effectively blends radio-style performance with more animated action in imaginative ways. His cast includes Theatre Seven company members Dan McArdle, Cassy Sanders, Brian Stojak and George Zerante, as well as Brett Lee, Lindsey Pearlman, Cody Proctor, Alina Tabor, Jessica Thigpen and Travis Williams.

Charles Lang in Water Engine - Theatre SevenEach cast member plays multiple roles in this play within a radio play. In fact, the 10 cast members portray over 40 parts, skillfully depicting radio actors, principals in the radio play and random Chicagoans in wonderful character sketches.

In the longest role, Proctor plays Lang with well-executed, nervous nerdiness. Zerante smarms as the crooked lawyer, and Williams menaces as the corporation muscle. Pearlman delightfully segues from refined actress to ranging street-corner orator to gruff storekeeper. Newcomer Tabor adds wide-eyed youthful charm.

The whole ensemble works together like a well-oiled machine.

 
   
Rating: ★★★★   
   
   

Cassy Sanders, Travis Williams, Jessica Thigpen, Brian Stojak, Lindsey Pearlman

All photos by Heather Stumpf

 

 

   
   

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REVIEW: The Pigeons (Walkabout Theatre)

Buying In and Selling Out—All Over a Cup of Coffee

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Walkabout Theatre presents
 
The Pigeons
 
by Joe Zarrow
directed by Cassy Sanders
at
Swim Café, 1357 W. Chicago (map)
thru June 7th  |  suggested donation: $10-$15  |  more info 

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Without a doubt, one can arrive unprepared for Joe Zarrow’s new play, The Pigeons, produced by Walkabout Theatre, at Swim Café’s space. It’s easily the cleverest, foxiest and physically wildest farces I’ve seen since, well, forever. The production’s biggest drawback may be the space itself. As a lucky critic on opening night, I got central place out of the severely limited seating—other audience members had to Pigeons vert settle for seats way off to the side of the dramatic action because of the café’s bowling-alley structure.

Walkabout chose Swim Cafe to ultra-locate Zarrow’s play in West Town, grounding its gentrification issues directly for that neighborhood. The Pigeons is about West Town’s café society confronting the dilemmas of buying in and selling out. But, honestly, this play could be revised to fit any up-and-coming neighborhood with its hypocritical, image-obsessed, anti-gentrification hipsters. They are a countercultural generation beset by worthy opponents for the same living spaces: the materialistic, self-absorbed yuppies for whom money equals sex and commitment, and the cunning, ethnic enthusiasts for the American Dream, manipulating their way to it by any—and every–means necessary.

Take Martin (Kevin Crisper) for example. He’s a community-conscious eco-hipster needing a place to stay in his gentrifying hood, so that he can keep his job and fulfill its mission to green the area. But he’s also something of a man-whore, whose dalliances with the ladies may be as much about attaining said living space as actual attraction to the ladies in question. Then there’s Martin’s buddy, Lloyd (Keith Neagle), a graphic artist and budding textile artist (okay, he likes crafts) who is totally in love with his slacker lifestyle. Lloyd’s been couch surfing in Martin’s various apartments since, well, college. Any café serves as his office and living room since he can reliably sit in one, with his books and notebooks, over one cup of coffee for up to six hours at a stretch. Lloyd maintains the purity of his ideals, in contrast to Martin, but that may be as much about the fact that he can retreat to his Dad’s home in Wilmette as any true courage of conviction.

Zarrow’s crafty, shrewd and artful dialogue knows whereof it speaks. Even Veronica (Emma Stanton), proprietor of the independent alternative café, in which Martin and Lloyd execute their warring discourses, is more obsessed with image, both the café’s and her own personal image (they are one!), than with selling coffee and paninis. Even slacker Lloyd gets roped into serving the customers while Veronica exits for image consultations with her advisor, Jorge. He discovers too late his gross error in serving Bex (Mary Hollis Inboden), a shapely, success-at-all costs real estate agent who places her complex latte order with him while awaiting a client. “I’m sorry,” says Lloyd, once corrected by Veronica, “I wasn’t aware of your socio-economic profiling policy.”

Bex and her shallow, materialistic, and seductive go-getter agenda may be everything Martin, Lloyd, and Veronica hate, but she’s nothing compared to Chad (Travis Williams), her yuppie frat-boy client. Who knows what subconscious manias really drive Chad, but any interaction with caffeinated beverages leads to behavior that requires a restraining order. The café’s perennial visitor, The Pierogi Lady (Mary Mikva), needs no stimulant other than her aspirations for a piece of the American pie.

 

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All together, Zarrow has created characters one finds in the farcical action movies of “Rat Race” or “It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, only he shows greater sophistication in his handling of themes. All the play needs now are some minor editing adjustments—Lloyd’s death scene goes a little too long, as do Veronica’s plans for homelessness at the end.

Director Cassy Sanders demonstrates she has the wherewithal to wind up her sterling, energetic, and savvy cast and let them fly. As Bex, Inboden had me with real estate speak like “Slippy-Whipper” and “I am a real estate agent—I have an instinctual connection to the land.” As Chad, Williams bowled me over with, “Bros before condos” and his own self-congratulatory plans to help out the “poor Spic kids” in the neighborhood. Crispin’s Martin is as self-compromising a philosopher as any, especially when it comes to getting what he desperately wants. “Our dreams are better than his dreams,” he says of Chad; once he confiscates Chad’s money, “What we have here is some real Robin Hood re-distribution shit!” For his part, Neagle makes me wonder just what Lloyd’s “macchiato incident” at Starbucks was really all about. Only the roles of Veronica and The Pierogi Lady seem a little on the thin side, which may have little or nothing to do with Stanton and Mikva’s interpretations of them.

Overall, audiences would do very well to squeeze their way into Swim Café’s space and enjoy the riveting, intelligent, and manic farce that Walkabout and The Pigeons provides for their neighborhood. And I think you can also get some coffee and a pastry before the show.

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 
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REVIEW: Mimesophobia (Theatre Seven)

One of the most refreshing plays to land this season

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Theatre Seven presents:

 

Mimesophobia

Written by Carlos Murillo
Directed by Margot Bordelon
At Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Avenue,
through April 4th (more info)

By Oliver Sava

I knew Mimesophobia was going to be Brechtian when I saw the costume rack on stage. Underneath the hanging clothes? A shelf of props. Double Brecht. No actors, no dialogue, and it is obvious who is running the show: everyone’s favorite pioneer of epic theatre, Bertolt Brecht. My suspicions are confirmed when the two narrators take the stage, Man-Who-Speaks-Omniscient-Between-the-2nd-and-3rd-Person-a.k.a. Brian (Brian Golden) and Woman-Who-Speaks-in-the-2nd-Person-Omniscient-a.k.a. Jessica (Jessica Thigpen). With the articulation of newscasters, the duo introduces us to the world of the play, continuously reminding us that what we are seeing is, without a doubt, a staged retelling.

T7_Mimesophobia_07 Suddenly the empty stage is Grauman’s Chinese Theater, where two young screenwriters are premiering their new film about the murder-suicide of a New England couple. Henry (Michael Salinas) and Aaron (Brian Stojak) break down the final scene of Before and After frame by frame – don’t forget, this is a retelling – and questions begin forming. Who died? How? And who is this woman going on The Charlie Rose Show and why is this elderly Hyde Park couple terrified of her? These questions will be answered by the end, but more will be left unanswered.

Mimesophobia juggles three storylines, each informing the others but also doubting them. Truth is relative. Cassy (Cassy Sanders), the sister of the murdered woman, tries to understand the events that lead to the killing by reconstructing her sister’s journals, burned on the night she was killed. At an artist’s colony, Henry and Aaron are working on a first draft of Before and After, but struggling with a bad case of writer’s block. Shawn (Cyd Blakewell) is the rambling genius writing One Night Only: Actual Death and the Future of American Entertainment, a nonfiction novel about cultural fascination with the recreation of deadly situations. Stuck on the middle chapter – “the cat burglar’s pick that once turned will drop the tumblers in place opening a door” – she is also living on a cot at the artist’s colony, eating peanut butter tortillas and murmuring like a maniac.

After the Chinese Theater prologue, the history of Shawn and how she crosses paths with Henry and Aaron. The script is clever, the narrators are beginning to have a little more fun – Jessica is playing Beth, Shawn’s mother – and Blakewell delivers each line in a detached monotone that is creepy as hell. Brecht rears his adorable little head with costume changes on stage and actors as set crew, but it works with the play’s theme that entertainment survives by fictionalizing fact. Theater is inherently a lie, but it is the collective experience of the audience seeing a story together that creates truth by asking the viewer to question what they think they know. The play has us asking questions and thinking about the bigger ideas, but is there a human connection? Is this a seriocomic experiment in dialectical metatheatre or will this story resonate on a deeper emotional level?

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Enter Cassy, the character most impacted by the central tragedy of the plot and our anchor to the truth. Sanders bring vulnerability to the production, her quivering voice and small frame a sharp contrast to the crisp confidence of the other performers, and her scenes are the most visceral of the production. As she uncovers hidden facts about her sister and her troubled marriage, Cassy begins to question her own relationship with the deceased.

The pieces are all in place, now the puzzle building begins, with Murillo’s script layering events to build suspense. Revelations that Cassy finds in her sisters journals provide major breakthroughs in the plot, which are then explored through the creative lens of Henry and Aaron. How Shawn fits into the narrative is the biggest mystery, and Blakewell offers few clues to her enigmatic character’s intentions, a captivating cipher.

Seeing these pieces come together is the fun of Mimesophobia, so the less you know, the better. Margot Bordelon’s direction moves the production at a quick pace that doesn’t sacrifice emotion, and the actors have a firm handle on Carlos Murillo’s stylized dialogue and the relationships, especially Cassy’s with her dead sister. Funny, provocative, and poignant, Theatre Seven’s Mimesophobia is a huge success for the young company, and one of the more refreshing plays to land this season.

 

Rating: ★★★★

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