Review: Murder for Two (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

     
     

Giddy, lighthearted show makes for perfect night at Navy Pier

     
     

Alan Schmuckler and Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s "Murder for Two—A Killer Musical", directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Navy Pier's Chicago Shakespeare. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

  
Chicago Shakespeare presents
  
  
Murder for Two – A Killer Musical
   
Music and Book by Joe Kinosian 
Lyrics and Book by Kellen Blair
Directed by David Bell 
at
Chicago Shakespeare, 800 E. Grand, Navy Pier (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $25-$30   |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

For all those who have ever wanted to just let loose on those entitled, staggeringly clueless cretins who let their cell phones ring in the theater – I mean really school them with an unsparing, five alarm verbal evisceration – there is a mighty catharsis that comes not once, not twice but three times within the confines of Murder for Two. Listening to Joe Kinosian go off after the loathsome twarbles (Who the fuck do you think you are?) invade the world of the play is not as deeply satisfying as hearing a skillfully delivered Shakespearian monologue. But it comes close. Such are the times we live in.

Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare. (Photo: Liz Lauren)As for the rest of Murder for Two, think The Mystery of Irma Vep infused with the world’s most gleefully wackadoodle piano recital. The two-person musical , which stars Alan Schmuckler as aspiring detective Marcus Moscowicz and Kinosian as nine murder suspects – is about as giddy and lighthearted as you can get short of climbing into a hermetically sealed, helium-filled bubble.

Kinosian (book and music) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics) take the familiar elements of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” and set them drunkenly careening through a music-filled spoof wherein homicide is hilarious and the climactic capture of the criminal isn’t nearly as important as the four-handed piano jam that follows it.

Directed by David Bell, Murder for Two is about as campy, over the top and self-consciously silly as theater gets. The piece is a showcase for the seemingly effortless madcap comic talents and fleet-fingered piano virtuosity of Schmuckler and Kinosian, whose musical repartee is just as important as their verbal repartee. The two manhandle and finesse the baby grand onstage with an athleticism you don’t usually associate with piano performance and a synergy that evokes Siamese twins – no mean feat, given that Kinosian is as lanky as a bean pole and limber as taffy while Schmuckler is significantly more compact both in personal architecture and in gesture.

The production’s highlight isn’t the solving of the murder, it’s the joyful, rollicking duet the pair unleash as an encore.

If that implies the balance of the show isn’t perfect, well, it isn’t. The primary problem here is that Murder for Two is a whodunit in which the “who” doesn’t really matter . It’s a genuine laff riot to be sure, and one in which the comedy is spectacularly well executed – but there’s never much momentum. Was it the self-absorbed ballerina, the looney tunes wife or the needy psychiatrist? Eh, who cares. The show doesn’t seem to care about creating a serviceable mystery as much as creating a comedy. If Murder for Two had both, it’d be killer. As it is, the show remains a marvelous romp.

Alan Schmuckler and Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Although be warned: If you’re not a fan of the meta-exaggerated mugging school of comedy, Kinosian’s camptacular overdrive will grow grating in a hurry. His mugging is so relentless you’d be forgiven for checking to ensure you still had your wallet post-show. He’s a shameless maelstrom of energy, playing a dizzying, high-energy whirl of suspects that include a daffy grad student in criminal justice, an ice maiden prima ballerina diva, a needy psychiatrist, an utterly insane party hostess (arguably Kinosian’s best work of the night) and a the trio of scamps (Skid, Yonkers and Timmy – think Our Gang crossed with a bunch of circus freaks) that comprise the 12-member all-boys choir brought in to entertain the guest of honor.

And then there’s Schmuckler. Having single-handedly saved Drury Lane’s tedious Sugar from being a total loss, he returns in fine form here. Moscowicz may not get to swan about the stage ronde de jambing or performing all-jazz-hands-on-deck disco showstoppers. He doesn’t need to. Wide-eyed and utterly sincere even as the lunacy reaches size XXL Crazypants, he makes you care and makes you laugh with equal force. He’s not showy, but he’s dazzling nonetheless.

Between them, Kinosian and Schmuckler almost makes you forgive the nagging fact that the murder mystery in Murder for Two seems irrelevant by the end.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Alan Schmuckler performs the role of the investigator and Joe Kinosian performs the roles of 13 murder suspects in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's premiere of Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, created by Kinosian (music/book) and Kellen Blair (lyrics/book) and directed by David H. Bell. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Photos by Liz Lauren and Michael Brosilow 

        
        

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Review: Murder for Two (Chicago Shakespeare Theater)

     
     

Giddy, lighthearted show makes for perfect night at Navy Pier

     
     

Alan Schmuckler and Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s "Murder for Two—A Killer Musical", directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Navy Pier's Chicago Shakespeare. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

  
Chicago Shakespeare presents
  
  
Murder for Two – A Killer Musical
   
Music and Book by Joe Kinosian 
Lyrics and Book by Kellen Blair
Directed by David Bell 
at
Chicago Shakespeare, 800 E. Grand, Navy Pier (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $25-$30   |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

For all those who have ever wanted to just let loose on those entitled, staggeringly clueless cretins who let their cell phones ring in the theater – I mean really school them with an unsparing, five alarm verbal evisceration – there is a mighty catharsis that comes not once, not twice but three times within the confines of Murder for Two. Listening to Joe Kinosian go off after the loathsome twarbles (Who the fuck do you think you are?) invade the world of the play is not as deeply satisfying as hearing a skillfully delivered Shakespearian monologue. But it comes close. Such are the times we live in.

Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare. (Photo: Liz Lauren)As for the rest of Murder for Two, think The Mystery of Irma Vep infused with the world’s most gleefully wackadoodle piano recital. The two-person musical , which stars Alan Schmuckler as aspiring detective Marcus Moscowicz and Kinosian as nine murder suspects – is about as giddy and lighthearted as you can get short of climbing into a hermetically sealed, helium-filled bubble.

Kinosian (book and music) and Kellen Blair (book and lyrics) take the familiar elements of Agatha Christie’s “Ten Little Indians” and set them drunkenly careening through a music-filled spoof wherein homicide is hilarious and the climactic capture of the criminal isn’t nearly as important as the four-handed piano jam that follows it.

Directed by David Bell, Murder for Two is about as campy, over the top and self-consciously silly as theater gets. The piece is a showcase for the seemingly effortless madcap comic talents and fleet-fingered piano virtuosity of Schmuckler and Kinosian, whose musical repartee is just as important as their verbal repartee. The two manhandle and finesse the baby grand onstage with an athleticism you don’t usually associate with piano performance and a synergy that evokes Siamese twins – no mean feat, given that Kinosian is as lanky as a bean pole and limber as taffy while Schmuckler is significantly more compact both in personal architecture and in gesture.

The production’s highlight isn’t the solving of the murder, it’s the joyful, rollicking duet the pair unleash as an encore.

If that implies the balance of the show isn’t perfect, well, it isn’t. The primary problem here is that Murder for Two is a whodunit in which the “who” doesn’t really matter . It’s a genuine laff riot to be sure, and one in which the comedy is spectacularly well executed – but there’s never much momentum. Was it the self-absorbed ballerina, the looney tunes wife or the needy psychiatrist? Eh, who cares. The show doesn’t seem to care about creating a serviceable mystery as much as creating a comedy. If Murder for Two had both, it’d be killer. As it is, the show remains a marvelous romp.

Alan Schmuckler and Joe Kinosian in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, directed by David H. Bell and playing Upstairs at Chicago Shakespeare.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Although be warned: If you’re not a fan of the meta-exaggerated mugging school of comedy, Kinosian’s camptacular overdrive will grow grating in a hurry. His mugging is so relentless you’d be forgiven for checking to ensure you still had your wallet post-show. He’s a shameless maelstrom of energy, playing a dizzying, high-energy whirl of suspects that include a daffy grad student in criminal justice, an ice maiden prima ballerina diva, a needy psychiatrist, an utterly insane party hostess (arguably Kinosian’s best work of the night) and a the trio of scamps (Skid, Yonkers and Timmy – think Our Gang crossed with a bunch of circus freaks) that comprise the 12-member all-boys choir brought in to entertain the guest of honor.

And then there’s Schmuckler. Having single-handedly saved Drury Lane’s tedious Sugar from being a total loss, he returns in fine form here. Moscowicz may not get to swan about the stage ronde de jambing or performing all-jazz-hands-on-deck disco showstoppers. He doesn’t need to. Wide-eyed and utterly sincere even as the lunacy reaches size XXL Crazypants, he makes you care and makes you laugh with equal force. He’s not showy, but he’s dazzling nonetheless.

Between them, Kinosian and Schmuckler almost makes you forgive the nagging fact that the murder mystery in Murder for Two seems irrelevant by the end.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Alan Schmuckler performs the role of the investigator and Joe Kinosian performs the roles of 13 murder suspects in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's premiere of Murder for Two—A Killer Musical, created by Kinosian (music/book) and Kellen Blair (lyrics/book) and directed by David H. Bell. (Photo: Michael Brosilow)

Photos by Liz Lauren and Michael Brosilow 

        
        

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Review: Hickorydickory (Chicago Dramatists)

  
  

Despite inconsistencies, provocative tale sets mind reeling

  
  

Joanne Dubach, Thomas Gebbia and Gail Rastorfer in a scene from "Hickorydickory" by Marisa Wegrzyn, directed by Russ Tutterow. (Photo credit: Chicago Dramatists)

      
Chicago Dramatists presents
   
  
Hickorydickory
   
   
Written by Marisa Wegrzyn
Directed by Russ Tutterow
at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through June 12  | 
tickets: $32  |  more info

Reviewed Catey Sullivan

In Hickorydickory, Chicago playwright Marisa Wegrzyn has penned a piece with the potential for becoming a mind-bending, provocative black comedy. With bloody and disturbing – and bloody disturbing – finesse, she spins a story that’s part smart dysfunctional family comedy, part coming-of-age drama and part gore-packed thriller.

But – and this is a significant “but” – Hickorydickory in many ways still feels like an early draft rather than a polished, finished product. Clocking in at a few minutes under three hours, it is in serious need of editing. Moreover, Wegrzyn keeps the rules she establishes for her fantasy sci-fi-esque tale of mortality in place only so long as they suit the plot. That means Hickorydickory is marred by false crises. Imagine the story of Rapunzel – girl trapped in an inaccessible tower, prince faced with the challenge of accessing it – but instead of ending with a creative solution involving a hair ladder, happily-ever-after is achieved when the prince suddenly realizes he can fly. Even in the worlds of fantasy, magic and sci-fi, the parameters need to be consistent for the dramatic tension to hold.

Hickorydickory’s chief strength lies in Wegrzyn’s ability to merge the ordinary with the fantastical. Her characters are people you know, a relatable, middle-class family forced to contend with situations one would expect to see wizards or sorcerers or elves in. It’s not really magical realism. Hickorydickory isn’t awash in dreamscapes and phantasms. Instead, it shows the everyday nuts, bolts and blood of living with something that just happens to defy the rules of science and the space-time continuum.

Director Russ Tutterow deftly merges both the ordinariness and the mind-blowing fairy tale-esque elements of Hickorydickory. Early on, the worlds of the real and the surreal clash with an impact that elicits laughter and gasps in the same moment. Attempting to repair an old pocket watch, a watch repair apprentice carefully opens the shiny antique – and gets an eyeful of blood when a crimson geyser spews from he workings. It’s an extraordinary event in an ordinary moment, powerfully realized.

Thoas Gebbia and Gail Rastorfer in a scene from "Hickorydickory" by Marisa Wegrzyn, directed by Russ Tutterow. (Photo credit: Chicago Dramatists)

Clearly, we’re not dealing with Swatches here. Third-generation (at least) clock and watch repairer Jimmy (Thomas Gebbia) specializes in a very particular brand: Mortal clocks. As Jimmy and his wife Kate (Gail Rastorfer) explain with exposition that is seamlessly woven into Wegrzyn’s conversational dialogue, mortal clocks reveal the precise moment – and cause – of their owner’s death. Most people are unaware of their mortal clocks, but every once in a great while someone is tragically born with their mortal clock lodged in the brain instead in its proper place behind the heart. Those unfortunate souls are burdened with knowing when, where and how they will die. Along with that heavy knowledge, they are continually subjected to a relentless tick-tocking countdown toward that final, fatal moment.

Life with this birth defect isn’t living, laments Jimmy’s 17-year-old daughter Dale (Cathlyn Melvin), it’s dying. And Dale is doubly burdened – first with the knowledge of her death’s date, and second with the fact that although she’s only a senior at New Trier, the date is imminent. Her life is a death march, her doom quite literally weighing on her mind.

Dale’s escape from the torturous ticking lies at the center of Wegrzyn’s plot. In flashbacks, we meet Dale’s teenage parents and learn the traumatic circumstances that led to her clock becoming misplaced. We also learn the lore of mortal clockery, much of it kept in a tome that looks, appropriately, like something out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It’s in the user’s manual that Wegrzyn falters. As two generations of clock shop owners assert, the years allotted by a mortal clock are inalterable. Or at least they are until someone conveniently finds a timely exception.

Hickorydickory is marred by inconsistencies in aging as well. Some people with mortal clocks (Dale’s grandmother, Helen) stop aging at a seemingly random point, while others age normally. On a similar note: Dale’s father Jimmy is supposed to be in his early-mid 30s but looks to be in his 50s. Since the math of their ages plays an important role in the plot, his premature aging is a tad distracting.

And for all Hickorydickory’s need of editing, Wegrzyn leaves some tantalizing issues curiously unexamined. Dale’s mother Cari Lee (Joanne Dubach) doesn’t age. Unlike Helen, Cari Lee’s arrested development is explained. But how does a person trapped at 17 survive for decades? Cari Lee is a sort of female Peter Pan, trying to live outside the cocoon of Neverland. But beyond making her a spoiled, immature brat who becomes irritating after her first scene, Wegrzyn fails to plumb Cari Lee’s psychology – or explain why she hasn’t been accused by her neighbors of being a vampire. Another hole: Characters occasionally bump into younger versions of themselves, even though there’s never any indication that mortal clocks can conjure up living, corporeal flashbacks.

Still, Hickorydickory sets the mind reeling with its implications. And the cast, many of them playing two roles, is solid. As Dale and the young incarnation of Kate, Melvin is terrific. She ably captures both Dale’s profound inner sadness at knowing when she’s destined to die and the tough, sarcastic outer exterior she dons to cope with that sadness. Rastorfer is capable as Dale’s loving stepmother Kate, although as Dale’s grandmother Helen she’s rather like Norma Desmond swanning through an especially grandiose audition – which is to say, more melodramatically suited to a silent movie than a realistic drama.

The other wonderfully realized aspect of Hickorydickory is Simon Lashford’s detailed set. Crammed with every imaginable kind of clock – grandfathers down to pocket watches – it’s an emporium where it feels like the past truly lives alongside the present. Barry Bennett’s original music is an evocative mix of echo-ey strings and delicate percussive ticks. If the passage of time made a sound, this would be it.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Chicago Dramatists’ Hickorydickory continues through June 12th at their performance space, 1105 W. Chicago (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $32, and can be purchased from their online box office. For more information, go to chicagodramatists.org.

  

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Review: Roadkill Confidential (Dog and Pony Theatre)

  
  

Video work adds little to self-indulgent, tedious concoction

  
  

L to R: Melanie (Heather Townsend) stumbles into Trevor's (Lucy Carapetyan) studio in the woods in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere production of Roadkill Confidential May 4-June 4 at The Building Stage. Photo by Timmy Samuel.

   
Dog and Pony Theatre Company presents
   
Roadkill Confidential
   
Written by Sheila Callaghan
Directed by Devon DeMayo
at The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter (map)
through June 4  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Dog and Pony’s Roadkill Confidential just might be the weirdest amalgamation of pretentious meaninglessness we’ve encountered on a stage. Ever. Despite what the various program notes would have you believe, playwright Sheila Callaghan’s work is neither bold nor invigorating. It is simply a tedious barrage of grainy, often visually indecipherable video footage looming over a messy and ultimately pointless pastiche of verbal non-sequiturs and bizarre, modern dance-like interludes that seem to have no connection with the rest of the production.

FBI Man (Sorin Brouwers) and Trevor (Lucy Carapetyan) perform the "We Sense Each Other Dance" in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere production of Roadkill Confidential by Sheila Callaghan. Photo Timmy Samuel In its sporadic moments of quasi-lucidity, Roadkill Confidential seems to be attempting some sort of satircal commentary on the everyday violence that consumes the world at large and/or humankind’s increasingly numb reaction to said violence. But the production comes across more confused than satirical. The video footage isn’t the only element of the production that’s mostly unintelligible. Roadkill Confidential also lacks a coherent narrative. Finally, director Devon De Mayo seems unconcerned with connecting the audience on any level whatsoever. The drama lurches along from one outlandish scene to the next without offering a single moment of emotional truth for the audience to latch on to.

Obviously, a traditional narrative and conventionally empathetic characters aren’t necessary for a play to work. From Ionesco to Beckett to Brecht and beyond, theater of the absurd and alienation can resonate with formidable power. But Callaghan’s absurdity seems to stand for nothing beyond its own self-indulgence.

The story, such as it is, centers on Trevor (Lucy Carapetyan), a churlish artist who specializes in creating sculptures made from roadkill. As charactere go, Trevor is two-dimensional, running the emotional gamut from A to B, or rather, from bitchy to bitchier. She is prone, as are the others on stage, to sudden outbreaks of stylized movement – rhythmic gyrations portrayed with an angst-ridden, dead seriousness but that read more like a parody of modern dance.

Trevor is being tracked by a one-eyed fellow known only as FBI Man (Sorin Brouwers), who believes the artist may be using her sculptures as weapons of germ-warfare. In between FBI Man’s rambling ruminations on high-tech surveillance gadgets and his own unflagging patriotism, Callaghan introduces Trevor’s tweedy partner William (Dan Smith), her seemingly brain-damaged stepson Randy (Andrew Goetten), and the fractured family’s uber-perky, socially clueless neighbor Melanie (Heather Townsend).

     
FBI Man (Sorin Brouwers) pauses dinner between Randy (Andrew Goetten), Melanie (Heather Townsend), and Trevor (Lucy Carapetyan) to share surveillance equipment in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere production of "Roadkill Confidential" by Sheila Callaghan. Photo Timmy Samuel Trevor (Lucy Carapetyan on screen) interrupts FBI Man's (Sorin Brouwers) surveillance in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere production of "Roadkill Confidential" by Sheila Callaghan. Photo Timmy Samuel

Among the five of them, there’s not a note of authenticity or a single moment that generates anything akin to empathy. What drives Trevor’s surly fascination with dead animals is anybody’s guess. As is the genesis of Randy’s bizarre obsession with cutlery. Combine the disconnected interludes of surreal, Isadora Duncan-on-absinthe undulations with the dearth of relatable humanity with video footage so muddy it looks like abstract art and you’ve got a show offers audiences very little incentive to stay interested.

Although to be sure, there is one video segment that clearly captures something recognizable, and recognizably part of the story: It is footage of a dog chained to a wall and left to starve as part of a gallery exhibit. It’s safe to assume no animals were actually harmed in the creation of Roadkill Confidential. Even so, the images of the purportedly starving mutt seem utterly gratuitous in their cruelty, an ugly, manipulative attempt by the playwright to be shocking. Equally ugly: A scene wherein Trevor, hands dripping with blood, wields a knife over a squirming, barely living squirrel (or something) and tells the struggling creature that she’s about to inflict pain that’ll hurt plike a “motherfucker.” Call me overly sensitive, but I see nothing worthwhile about watching small animals tortured to death, even when it’s only pretend.

As for Trevor’s final art project, it’s so beyond the pale as to beggar description. But just when you think Roadkill Confidential couldn’t get anymore pointlessly strange or manipulative in its attempts to be edgy and innovative, Callaghan introduces a musical number involving another dying creature Trevor has drafted into her artwork.

Successful plays don’t need likeable characters or traditional plots. It is quite possible to fuse traditional dramatic action with dance and video and come up with a compelling multi-disciplinary artistic hybrid. But Roadkill Confidential, in its strenuous attempts to be push the envelope of edginess and provocation, only succeeds in being tedious. It’s not innovative so much as it is inane. And in the end, uninteresting.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

L to R: Randy (Andrew Goetten), Trevor (Lucy Carapetyan on table) and William (Dan Smith) flashback to fame time in Dog & Pony Theatre Company's Midwest premiere production of "Roadkill Confidential" by Sheila Callaghan. Photo: Timmy Samuel

Roadkill Confidential continues through June 4, with performances Thursdays through Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 general admission, $15 for students and seniors. All previews plus Thursday and Sunday performances are pay-what-you-can. For tickets, call The Building Stage box office at 312-491-1369 or visit www.dogandponychicago.org.     (All photos by Timmy Samuel)

     

     
     

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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: Next to Normal (Broadway in Chicago)

     
     

A harshly relevant, yet gloriously hopeful masterpiece

     
     

The cast of 'Next to Normal' - Clockwise from top: Curt Hansen, Jeremy Kushnier, Preston Sadleir, Emma Hunton, Asa Somers, and Alice Ripley

  
Broadway in Chicago presents
  
Next to Normal
  
Book/Lyrics by Brian Yorkey
Music by Tom Kitt
Directed by Michael Greif
at Bank of America Theatre, 18 W. Monroe (map)
through May 8  | 
tickets: $32 – $95  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Last year, the Pulitzer Prize board took a look at the short list from the subcommittee that makes recommendations on who should win the coveted award for drama. The board tossed the recommendations out, and instead bestowed the Pulitzer on Next to Normal, a show that the recommending body didn’t even rate as a semi-finalist. In some circles, the decision was viewed as an autocratic move illustrating the limitations of an unchecked board. Others applauded the decision, overjoyed that a musical about mental illness had catapulted the difficult topic into the national spotlight. Revisiting Next to Normal for the second time in as many years, we’re more certain than ever that the Pulitzer went to the right people.

Alice Ripley and Curt Hansen in 'Next to Normal'.On paper, the show sounds like the worst idea for a musical since “Springtime for Hitler”. Next to Normal has no dance numbers to speak of, no chorus line of cute chorines, no happy ending. It is about a woman who has shock treatments. It is also about a family that has been devastated by tragedy, perhaps beyond repair. It is about doctors who admit that nobody really knows how to cure mental illness and that finding an effective treatment for mood disorders is like locating a silver thread in a huge, cloudy swamp. It is about the futility of stumbling blindly through ad lib regimes of SRO inhibitors, benzodiazepines, lithium, Prozac, Cymbalta, Zoloft, Seroquel, and an endless alphabet soup of other chemistry-altering pills whose side effects range from dizziness to death. Clearly, we’re not in Shuffle-off-to-Buffalo territory here.

Yet in a country where, year after year, suicides outnumber homicides, Next to Normal is about as relevant, compelling and urgently necessary as theater gets. It also benefits from composer Tom Kitt’s gorgeous score, Brian Yorkey’s smart, insightful lyrics and direction by Michael Greif that grabs your heart within the first 10 seconds and doesn’t let go until long after the final curtain call. Next to Normal is not an easy show: It confronts you relentlessly with the despair, absurdity and in-curability of mood disorders. But it is also gloriously hopeful as it shines a compassionate spotlight on a topic about which there is far too much ignorance.

And make no mistake – that ignorance is rampant. Consider the language of suicide: We say “Diana killed herself,” as if the act were a choice, a decision uninfluenced by the very real illness of depression. When people die of cancer, the disease is blamed. When people die of depression, the victims are blamed.

So much for background on the societal necessity of this particular show. This is theater, so the real question isn’t about its social value. It’s about whether it is any good. The answer is yes. With significant caveat. The cast for the touring production is mostly as good as the Broadway ensemble, but the player who falls outside that “mostly” is crucial.

     
Curt Hansen (Gabe), Alice Ripley (Diana) and Asa Somers (Dan) in Broadway in Chicago's 'Next to Normal' Emma Hunton as Natalie in the national tour of 'Next to Normal'.
Asa Somers as Dan in Broadway in Chicago's 'Next to Normal'. Preston Sadleir as Henry in Broadway in Chicago's "Next to Normal" Curt Hansen as Gabe in Broadway in Chicago's "Next to Normal"

Next to Normal is anchored by Alice Ripley, who won the Tony for her performance as Diana Goodman on Broadway. But Ripley’s voice is not what it was on Broadway a year ago. Performing this vocally demanding score eight times a week has taken a toll. She struggles significantly with both pitch and with diction. Crucial lyrics are muddy, soaring top notes falter painfully. Pivotal numbers – I Miss the Mountains, You Don’t Know, Didn’t I See This Movie – don’t get the clarity the plot needs or the musicality the score contains.

Acting, Ripley remains superb, capturing the highs, lows and utter absurdities of mood disorders with an accuracy that is both deeply moving and blackly hilarious. But Next to Normal demands a great vocalist as well as a great actress. Opening night at the Bank of America (Shubert) Theatre, Ripley simply wasn’t consistent in the former capacity.

Alice Ripley as Diana in Broadway in Chicago's "Next to Normal"Still – perhaps paradoxically – Next to Normal remains a four star, must-see show. The supporting cast is pitch perfect. As Diana’s struggling 16-year-old daughter, Emma Hunton is heart-breaking in her vulnerability and defensive anger. With the short, bittersweet “Everything Else”, she delivers an ode to the crystalline order of Mozart’s music, with a poignant wistfulness that’s as sad as it is beautiful. As Diana’s son Gabe, Curt Hansen is thrilling, at once alluring and menacing and positively electrifying on the rock-infused “I’m Alive.” As Diana’s husband, Asa Somers’ Dan, delivers both the all-but unbearable frustration that results when a loved one’s struggle with mental illness seems never ending and years of treatment prove to be of dubious value. And as Diana’s psychiatrist, Jeremy Kushnier deftly portrays both the expertise and the impotence of a science that is more guess work than anything.

Next to Normal remains a magnificent musical. But with Ripley no longer in prime voice, it isn’t as magnificent as it might be.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

The cast of "Next to Normal", now playing at the Bank of America Theatre in downtown Chicago. Photo by Joan Marcus.

Photos by Joan Marcus.

     

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Review: Ethan Frome (Lookingglass Theatre)

     
     

Bleak, desperate tale remains with you long after blackout

    
   

Louise Lamson, Lisa Tejero and Philip R. Smith - in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams

   
Lookingglass Theatre presents
   
Ethan Frome
        
Adapted and Directed by Laura Eason
from novel by
Edith Wharton
at
Lookingglass Theatre, 821 N. Michigan Ave. (map)
thru April 17  | 
tickets: $20 – $63  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

Everything about Ethan Frome is cold and stark. The bare branches of the skeletal trees framing the set. The sharp angles of rough-hewn planks representing a New England farm. The minimalist dialogue. The loveless marriage of the piece’s titular anti-hero. The very name of the town where the story plays out: Starkfield.

From set designer Daniel Ostling’s austere evocation of Massachusetts in winter to actor Philip R. Smith’s depiction of the taciturn Ethan, the world of Edith Wharton’s turn-of the-century tragedy is chilly and severe. That harsh sensibility wholly informs Laura Eason’s adaptation of the classic, a terse, 90-minute telling that captures the chill as well as the relentless longing and frustration that define Frome’s life.

Dan Ostling's bleak, powerful set in Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean WilliamsIn creating a world that’s as bleakly spare as a frozen field, Eason (who also directs) gives Wharton’s prose a memorable impact. But that austere ambiance also serves to distance the audience from both story and characters. With Ethan Frome, you’re watching tragedy unfold from afar, as a spectator separated from the action by a scrim of frost. The effect creates a staging that is powerful but muted. Ethan’s troubles come to life from a distance, seen through a metaphorical lens lightly coated in rime.

The production moves at a slow, matter-of-fact pace that matches the temperament of Ethan himself, a New England family farmer of few words. Up until the penultimate scene – a wind-whipped catastrophe staged with such simple and simply beautiful force that it will leave you breathless – the story is one where torrents of emotion are cloaked in small, seemingly inconsequential gestures and almost monosyllable dialogue. The plot is more feeling than doing, and those feelings – roiling blizzards of love, rage, sorrow and yearning – are trapped like the whirling flakes beneath the dome of a snow globe.

Ethan (Philip R. Smith) initially seems more shadow than substance as silently shuffles across a murky stage, one lame foot dragging behind him. His limp and striking, lonesome figure arouses the curiosity of Henry Morton (Andrew White), the out-of-towner whose pensive narration of Frome’s story bookend the story.

Through Henry‘s recollections, we see that Ethan’s quiet life has been defined by sickness and by the women in it. Coming in from a hard day hauling lumber, he’s faced with a dark house and the wailing, disconsolate wailing of his dying mother. He longs, Ethan murmurs, to hear other voices in the home. He gets his desire when Xena, (Lisa Tejero) arrives to care for Ethan’s mother and then marries him after the old woman dies.

But as Tejero makes implicit in Xena’s unsettling transformation from benevolent helpmate to hypochondriac domestic dictator, the one-time nursemaid soon becomes as onerous a burden as the timber Ethan hauls. Tejero makes Xena’s sickly dominance complete; her character is so noxious as to be slowly drowning Ethan in his own home. In Smith’s fine performance, Ethan’s helplessness and increasing hopelessness become almost palpable. His words are soft-spoken and sparse. His eyes are wild with desperation.

     
Andrew White and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams Louis Lamson and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams
Andrew White and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams Louise Lamson and Erik Lochtefeld in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams

Into this oppressive atmosphere comes Xena’s young cousin Mattie Silver (Louise Lamson), a lively, generous woman whose youthful vitality, curiosity and kindness stand in direct contrast to the prematurely aging, forever sickly and self-absorbed Xena. The romantic triangle that results is not surprising. The controlled intensity with which it plays out is memorable, Lamson as luminous as early spring, Tejero the personification of dour, gray winter.

The contrast among the three principals is subtly emphasized in Mara Blumenfeld’s deft costume design. Mattie sports a scarf the color of cherry blossoms, Xena dresses in drab blacks and grays, Smith’s worn, earth-colored trousers speak to Ethan’s rich love of the land. Color, or the lack thereof, plays a similarly key role throughout the production. The fate of Xena’s ruby-red pickle dish is a tragedy in miniature reflecting the larger destruction of entire lives.

That wind-whipped destruction comes tangled in a moment of wild and breathless joy as Eason’s hurtles toward the drama’s ultimately sobering conclusion. The freeze-frame tableau toward the end of Ethan Frome – a bright pool of cherry-colored blood starkly outlined against the haze of winter whites – is apt to remain with you long after the final blackout.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
       
    

Louis Lamson and Philip R. Smith in a scene from Lookingglass Theatre's 'Ethan From', adapted by Laura Eason from book by Edith Wharton. Photo credit: Sean Williams

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