REVIEW: A Doll’s House (Infamous Commonwealth)

  
  

Time-warping Ibsen to 1962 creates mixed results

  
  

Kate Cares and Stephen Dunn in Henrik Ibsen's "A Doll's House", presented by Infamous Commonwealth Theatre

  
Infamous Commonwealth Theatre presents
  
A Doll’s House
  
Written by Henrik Ibsen
Adapted by Christopher Hampton
Directed by
Chris Maher
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through Feb 27  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

In traditional A Doll’s House productions, when Nora makes her infamous Act III departure, she’s presumably venturing out into a 19th-century world completely unaccustomed to female independence, her fate a mystery. During the last five minutes before the curtain closes, the Norwegian housewife becomes a radical icon for feminist and theatrical scholars to likely debate over for centuries to come.

Place that same ending in a 1962 New York apartment, and what happens? When Nora grabs her suitcase and heads for the door, we already know that a revolutionary wave of women’s liberation is waiting on the other side. Is she taking a risk? Sure. But is it still an iconic one? Not really. In fact, give her a month or two on her friend’s couch, and she’ll probably be fine.

Infamous Commonwealth Theatre debuts its sacrifice-themed 2011 season with this half-hearted update on A Doll’s House, directed by ICT Artistic Director Chris Maher.

Conceptually, a 60’s “Doll’s House” has potential, which a few glimmers of inspiration confirm. As Nora (played competently by Kate Cares) sashays around in her meticulously clean, gold-wallpapered home, she’s underscored by records of the era’s heart-tugging Christmas carols. Even when her family is on the verge of collapse, she maintains a pure, innocent image, not unlike the 60’s themselves—a turbulent decade ironically synonymous with child-like Technicolor and simplicity.

If only Maher took his idea further. Save for some cubed ice and retro furniture, there’s very little adaptation from more classic productions, and no, the inclusion of an excerpt from Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique” in the Playbill is not enough. The lack of investment is especially troublesome when it comes to the play’s language. Instead of highlighting A Doll’s House’s contemporary parallels, the semi-update mostly just brings forth the play’s inherent melodrama. Stephen Dunn (Torvald) deserves extra credit for being able to utter lines like “I don’t want any melodramatics!” without wincing, given the entirety of the play until that point is just that.

It’s all moot, really, since Maher’s production is hindered by elements far more basic than concept. Casting is the most notable.

As Krogstad, baby-faced Josh Atkins neither looks nor sounds the part of a blackmailing antagonist. Nothing states that Nora’s nemesis has to be a deep-voiced, brooding menace, but Atkins presumes that archetype while not having any of the physical or vocal characteristics to back it up. The result resembles a boy wearing his father’s suit. Cares does her blustering best to seem intimidated by Atkins’ threats, to little dramatic avail.

But no player is more troublesome than Genevieve Thompson, fatally cast as Nora’s confidante Kristine. Thompson recites almost all of her lines with forced exasperation. It sounds as if she’s giving a first table-reading, discovering her lines’ beats a moment or two after she’s said them. The interactions between her and Cares rarely seem to take place on the same page.

A few minor, distracting details go unnoticed by the production team, like Nora’s Act I synthetic-fabric dress. Some lines are muffled under the snowsuit-like material (“Let’s not swish swish talk business. It’s so boring! swish.”)

Scenes between Nora and Torvald are this “Doll’s House’s” saving grace. Dunn and Cares effectively capture Ibsen’s intentionally blurred familial relationship between husband and wife. To Torvald, Nora is his spouse, but treats her as his child. He wags his finger in parental disapproval when he catches her sneaking some sweeties, only to later leer at her as she dances a sexually-charged Tarantella. When Nora kneels beside Torvald, it’s anyone’s guess whether she’s about to ask for candy or fellate him.

The duo preserves just enough integrity for a passable production. But even under new clothes, this is amateur-ish Ibsen, all dressed up with nowhere to go.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Featuring: Josh Atkins, Kate Cares, Stephen Dunn, Barbara Roeder Harris, Amanda Roeder, Mark Shallow, and Genevieve Thompson

Production Team: Katherine Arfken (Scenic Design), Tom Aufmann (Technical Director), Sarah Gilmore (Assistant Stage Manager), Sarah Luse (Production Manager), Rachel M. Sypniewski (Costume Designer and Managing Director), Mac Vaughey (Lighting Designer), Chas Vbra (Sound Designer) and Cade Wenthe (Stage Manager).

REVIEW: 1985 (Factory Theater)

 

Strong performances penalized by repetitive punchlines

 

 Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 002

   
Factory Theater presents
   
1985
   
Written by Chas Vrba
Directed by
Eric Roach
DCA Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph (map)
through November 7  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Chicago, 1985, and the Bear Nation holds totalitarian control over the city’s football fans. As the Bear Nation’s chief propaganda writer Winston (Chas Vrba) begins to question why everyone devotes their lives to a team that keeps losing, the unfathomable happens: the 1985 Bears start winning. A lot. In Chas Vrba’ 1985, George Orwell’s dystopian classic “1984” is reimagined in the grisly world of professional sports, where Big Brother is “Papa Bear” George Halas (Ernie Deak) Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 004 and Room 101 turns Packers fans into blue and orange-clad zombies. Vrba should be applauded for trying to bring a new audience of sports fans to the theater, and the clever script is impressively researched and filled with references to the professional sports world.

Winston’s loyalty to the Bear Nation begins to crumble when he notices the flaws in the Nation’s doctrine. A romance with new recruit Julia (Lindsay Verstegen) blossoms into full blown treason, as the two hatch a plan to enlighten their friends through loss. In the midst of the absurdity, Vrba begins to examine the subconscious of the football fan, and the reasons why people cheer for the teams that keep losing. The reason is for years like the ’85 Chicago Bears. The ‘90s Bulls. 2010 Blackhawks. Winning is so much sweeter when all you know is loss. Unfortunately, the script spends less time on idea and more on the goofy antics of the Bear Nation.

Maybe I’ve been spoiled by The Elaborate Entrance of Chad Deity (our review), but a comedy about sports culture needs to survive on more than audience-specific jokes and slapstick physical comedy. Vrba’s concept has the potential to explore the deeper emotional and psychological connections between the fans and their team, but this takes a back seat to an uninspired love triangle between Howard, Julia, and foul-mouthed Diane (Stacie Barra). After a while, the script develops the feel of a sketch comedy idea that has overstayed its welcome. Despite the strong efforts of the cast, the limited supply of jokes and gags gets old, making the latter half of the play drag as it retreads old ground. “Bear down!” as a pledge of allegiance stops being funny pretty quickly, and the barrage of groan-worthy Bears puns (“membears,” “bearification,” “bearnificent”) seldom stops, but it’s hard to fault the actors when they show such dedication to their material.

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The hardcore followers of the Bear Nation are unabashed in their chaotic revelry, and the larger group sequences are the most memorable in the production. When everyone gathers to watch the game, you sense the camaraderie An early scene where the Nation puts “membear” Matt (Timothy C. Amos) on trial for his allegiance to the Resistance and role in the Cubs’ loss of the ’84 National Series Championship erupts into a viciously hilarious free for all, and an enraged Amos proves a more than capable opponent for the Nation. Matt’s transformation after a visit to Room 101 gives  Amos a lot of opportunities for screwball comedy, and his reactions to cast mates often trump the actual dialogue. But as the show progresses his outbursts become superfluous; his character another joke Factory Theatre - 1985 - DCA Storefront Theatre 001gone stale. Compared to his ecstatic scene partners, Vrba’s controlled, soft-spoken portrayal of Wilson gets lost in a flood of crazy. Wilson never appears very thrilled about the Bears, so when his friends complain about his odd, withdrawn behavior, it just doesn’t make sense.

The sports play is an intriguing creature. The dramatic and comedic potential of professional athletics has been explored by Hollywood, but remains largely unknown to the theater world. The possibility of the same people packing the stands at Soldier Field filling the seats of Chicago theaters is a thrilling one, both from a financial and intellectual standpoint, but is probably an unrealistic hope for most theaters. 1985 is a step in the right direction, and Eric Roach’s slick direction keeps the pace of Vrba’s clever script as smooth as the Super Bowl Shuffle. Despite it’s problems, 1985 has more comic morsels to offer Bears fans than any other play this season, and football fans should definitely give it a look – it will be a night to “remembear”.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: Hey! Dancin! (Factory Theatre)

Retro play satirizes modern celebrity

 

hey-dancin

 
Factory Theatre presents
 
Hey! Dancin’!
 
by Kirk Pynchon and Mike Beyer
directed by
Sarah Rose Graber
at
Prop Thtr, 3504 N. Elston (map)
through April 24th (more info)
 
reviewed by Keith Ecker 
 

In 1986, the same year that the Factory Theater’s new play Hey! Dancin’! takes place, I was 5 years old. But just because I was barely old enough to walk doesn’t mean I didn’t know how to dance. I fondly remember shaking it to Prince’s “Batdance” and jiving to the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance.” Yes, my memory is drenched with visions of DayGlo, high tops and sunglasses at night. The Chicago theatre scene seems to share the same penchant for the Reagan era, churning out no less than three 1980s-themed productions in the last month.

hey-dancin3 But whereas the other two plays—both stage versions of The Breakfast Club (here and here) —are adaptations of a popular movie, Hey! Dancin’! is wholly original. And although leading an audience into unknown territory comes with great risk, the entire cast and crew of Hey! Dancin’! executes the wonderfully written piece close to perfection. The end result is a stunningly entertaining play that evokes genuine laughs while offering insight into our modern perceptions of celebrity.

The play is about a fictitious popular cable access Chicago TV show called “Hey! Dancin’!” Think of it as a poor man’s American Bandstand but with much bigger hair and a much smaller audience. The protagonist, Halle (Melissa Nedell), and her sexually blossoming friend Trisha (Catherine Dughi), are obsessed with the show. The two teenagers squeal when their favorite cast members appear on screen, whom they know on a first-name basis.

“Hey! Dancin’!” is about to wrap up its TV season and the girls decide they desperately need to appear on air. Halle has an urge to meet teenage heartthrob Kenny Kapowski (Jacob A. Ware), who goes by the moniker K.K. Trisha has a much less innocent crush on the show’s older host Randy (Anthony Tournis), whose fashion sense is inspired by Miami Vice.

Meanwhile, the cable access network’s station manager Dennis Blackburn (Noah Simon) is getting phone calls from angry parents that the dance music on “Hey! Dancin’!” is upsettingly too “black.” Instead, he is being urged to play the top white hits of the day, Bon Jovi being the prime example. Randy is on the side of the kids and tries to put his foot down on changing the show’s format.

There is yet another plot line at work, one involving the aforementioned heartthrob K.K. and his on-air/off-air girlfriend Tanya Lacy (Aileen May). Tanya is a demanding diva who fancies herself as the star of “Hey! Dancin’!” She concocts a staged lover’s quarrel for the final show of the season, but her tyrannical attitude is a turnoff to K.K., who may just be looking elsewhere for love—or at least a little dry humping in the supply closet.

Hey! Dancin’! isn’t just a hair-brained ‘80s-inspired comedy. It’s also an effective satire on people’s perceptions of celebrity today. K.K. and his girlfriend Tanya see themselves as the center of the universe because they are on TV.—cable access—but TV nonetheless. Halle and Trisha give this notion weight since they are star-obsessed with these no-name nudniks. Yet as Halle gets to know the real K.K., who admittedly dreams of being famous without actually ever wanting to hone any real talent, the image of these backwoods celebrities begins to crumble.

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Before seeing the play, I was afraid it would suffer from a few obvious pitfalls. First, the concept of a kid’s dance show where the music is “too black” closely parallels the plot of Hairspray. Fortunately, the writers, Kirk Pynchon and Mike Beyer, knew not to make this a central focus. Instead, the show’s possible demise hangs in the background, allowing the characters and their drama to take center stage.

In addition, a show set in 1986 could easily have been overburdened with cliché references. And although the play definitely capitalizes on ‘80s nostalgia, it refrains from being a staged version of VH1’s “I Love the ‘80s.”

The acting is brilliant. The comedic timing of most of the players is impeccable. I’ve seen countless improv, sketch and stand-up shows, and this rivals the best of them. Simon as the recovering alcoholic station manager is a scene-stealer with his Muppet-like voice and general awkwardness.

The show is an hour and 20 minutes long with no intermission, but you won’t be squirming in your seat thanks to Sarah Rose Graber’s directing. She makes sure the play moves along at a fast pace, only slowing down for scenes that demand extra attention, such as the aforementioned supply closet tryst.

Hate them or love them, the 80’s happened. And although that decade continues to be a pox on contemporary society (I’m looking at you MTV), the fact that we now have Hey! Dancin’! almost makes it all worth it.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Hey! Dancin’! continues through April 24th, performance on Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm ($20.00), and Sundays 7pm ($15.00). All performances at Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston Ave.

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REVIEW: Factory Theater’s “1985”

 Papa Bear is watching you

 

1985Poster

The Factory Theater presents:

1985

by Chas Vrba
directed by Eric Roach
thru December 19th at Prop Thtr (ticket info)

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

1985-castThe Factory Theater’s 1985 is a work of true love, from beginning to end. Chas Vrba is passionate about the subject matter, and it comes across in the concept and the layout of his farcical first full-length play. A re-imagining of George Orwell’s iconic science fiction novel “1984” set in 1985 Chicago at the height of the Bears season.

Winston (Vrba) has the same name and function as George Orwell’s protagonist, but we never get much of a read on him or any of the other Orwell inspired characters (it’s a farce, remember?). A sports writer, he is in charge of writing pro-Bears propaganda (and believing it, too) and collecting reports on new mem-bears (sic). This is what gets him in trouble with the beautiful and mysterious Juila (Laura McKenzie), who opens his eyes to a world out side of bear nation, and who steals his heart.

What all of this means to you depends entirely upon your experience as a Chicagoan, as a reader of classic science fiction, and as a sports fan. The audience I saw the show with adored it. They were enchanted by the familiar and obscure references that the play is laced with. I on the other hand am not, so was completely lost for a lot of it. Judging from the amount of references to Billy Buckner,  I feel safe in saying that this show was not intended for those of us not originally from Chicago without any sports knowledge or memories of years predating 1988.

It’s hard to talk about such a personal show without personally responding to it. And what’s wrong with that? This show is unapologetically specific, local and esoteric; which is the best that theater can be. Theater does not and should not have the scope of its competing form of entertainment. It is a personal, local thing. This show will not be for everybody. But for some people, it will hit nerves that run very deep.

1985-3 The play has clever ways of weaving Chicago Bearophillia into an Orwellian dystopia. First, it replaces Big Brother with “Papa Bear” George Halas (Ernie Deak), who owned the Bears until his death in 1983. It then turns Chicago into “Bear Nation,” where thoughtcrimes against the Bears are punishable by being sent to the dreaded and mysterious room 101. It saturates the dialogue with so many Bears puns that less than 15 minutes in, you can feel them coming and where. Finally, it shows Chicago hard-core sports fans for the brainwashed, cold-hearted intellectual slaves they sometimes appear to be. One of the best moments in the play comes after one character; a particularly devoted and disturbed mem-bear delivers a monologue explaining the camaraderie between the Cubs and the Bears. His conclusion is that cubs are baby bears, meaning that the two go together. He then rhetorically asks, “What goes with White Sox? White Hose? That would be better suited for describing their women!” which is met with cheers and applause by his brainwashed brethren. This moment is so shocking because the language is so course and out of place – especially falling on ears numbed by 45 minutes of Bears puns – that it totally encapsulates what is wrong with Chicago fandom. For those not from here, or with out the memories of 1985, the show may not hit home. But all who live in Chicago can relate to the dangerous peaks that fans climb to, the dangers of seeing black and calling it white, and more than that, believing it is white. The dangers in seeing a losing team and calling it a winner, and worse than that, believing that it is a winner. In that regard, maybe you don’t have to be from here to get it.

It should be noted that Angelina Martinez’s set is wonderful, minimal, usable and clever, perfect for just such a small Chicago production.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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"Hizzoner" announces Spring 2009 schedule

The hugely popular (and critically-acclaimed) “Hizzoner: Daley The First”, which ran for over 300-performances, will be seen again on Chicago stages this coming spring.  The producers, Gipeti Entertainment, have announced the 2009 performance schedule, including a month-long stay at the Skokie Theatre, 7924 N. Lincoln Ave., Skokie (Feb. 6 – 22, 2009) and a return to the Chicago stage at the Theatre Building, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. (April 2 – May 17, 2009). Tickets for 2009 dates are available at each box office or at hizzonertheplay.com, Skokie Theatre dates are currently on sale and Theatre Building dates go on sale Friday, Dec. 5.

This upcoming production will include many of the original performers: Neil Giuntoli, Don Schroeder, William Bullion, Nick Leininger, Diane Honeyman, Gordon Gillespie; and some new additions; Chas Vrba, Cecil Burroughs, Chuck Jacobson, Mike O’Brien.

Read our glowing review here.