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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American Blues announces 25th-Anniversary Season

american blues theatre logo 

announces its

* 25th-Anniversary Season Productions *

 

Includes the regional premiere of Rantoul & Die by Mark Roberts (“Two and a Half Men”) and the new annual Blue Ink Playwriting Contest.

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Pictures from most recent production, critically-acclaimed Tobacco Road

November 26 – December 31, 2010

   
  It’s a Wonderful Life: Live at the Biograph!
   
  Directed by Marty Higganbotham
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Featuring ABT Ensemble members Kevin Kelly, Ed Kross, John Mohrlein and Gwendolyn Whiteside
   
  From the original director and Ensemble that brought this holiday tradition to Chicago in 2004.  Join the American Blues family as we take you back to a 1940s radio broadcast of Frank Capra’s holiday classic It’s a Wonderful Life, with live Foley sound effects, an original score, and a stellar cast of seven that bring the entire town of Bedford Falls to life.  From the moment you walk through the doors, you will be transported back to the Golden Age of Radio, and experience the story of George Bailey like never before.  Critics called this production “perfect Christmas theater” and “first class holiday fare.”

 

March 2011

   
  American Blues – Collected One Acts
   
  by Tennessee Williams 
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Directed by Dennis Zacek, Steve Scott, Brian Russell, Damon Kiely and Heather Meyers
   
  This one-night benefit performance celebrates American playwright Tennessee Williams’ 100th birthday.  These five short plays were selected by Williams’ in the rarely produced 1948 collection entitled “American Blues” to showcase his commitment to the blue-collar worker.  ABT is thrilled to work with directors who have made significant contributions to the success and livelihood of the Blues’ Ensemble theater throughout the 25 years.  ABT will announce the winner of the first annual “Blue Ink” Playwriting prize at this event.

 

April 15 – May 29, 2011

   
  Rantoul & Die
   
  Written by Mark Roberts i/a/w Stephen Eich and Don Foster
In the Richard Christiansen Theater, 2433 N. Lincoln, Chicago
Directed by Erin Quigley
Featuring ABT Ensemble members Kate Buddeke, Cheryl Graeff, and Lindsay Jones.  With guest artists Steppenwolf Ensemble members Francis Guinan and Alan Wilder.
   
  From the writer and executive producer of “Two and a Half Men” comes a new play with four of the funniest, ugliest,  and most heartbreakingly real characters ever, all crammed together in a grimy little world that makes the local Dairy Queen and Dante’s Inferno seem one and the same.  The Hollywood reporter calls Rantoul & Die “original and devastatingly funny!” Regional premiere.

 

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   from Tobacco Road  (our review ★★★)
   

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REVIEW: Body Awareness (Profiles Theatre)

Profound storytelling at Profiles

 

bodyawareness-top

   
Profiles Theatre presents
   
Body Awareness
 
by Annie Baker
directed by
Benjamin Thiem
at
Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway (map)
through June 27th  |  tickets: $30-$34  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

The dilemma would vex Solomon: How to make sure you are seen without also being judged? Admitted or not, it’s a query that niggles at the very core of existence, a philosophical battle embedded in situations ranging from first dates to, arguably, last rites. Nobody wants to be invisible. But with visibility, there is an inevitable degree of objectification. Or is there?

Annie Baker’s Body Awareness puts the debate in terms as complex as they are hilarious and ironic. Directed by Benjamin Thiem for Profiles Theatre, this is the theatrical equivalent of a page-turner: The story is ultra-compelling, the characters are people you care about and recognize.  As for the fraught moral fog they attempt to navigate in dealing with issues of body, self, sexuality and fidelity, it’s the stuff of real life, minus the boring parts.

body-aware03 The conflict simmers toward boil-over when lesbian high school instructor Joyce (Barb Stasiw) starts bleaching, plucking and pruning a in preparation for a naked photo shoot.  Her partner Phyllis (Cheryl Graeff) quickly blows a righteous feminist gasket over the situation:  Joyce, Phyllis rails, is caving in to the demands of the “male gaze.”  By so succumbing, Phyllis threatens, Joyce is committing an unforgivable act.

So, is bleaching one’s mustache an act of willful subjugation to the patriarchal hierarchy? If one shaves ones legs before baring them in public, is one reinforcing the sort of deeply damaging objectification that turns women into sex objects  and nothing more? Or is the whole culture of plucking/waxing/bleaching/powdering/ad infinitum just indicative of an elevated sort of self-care? After all, if Joyce feels ugly walking around hirsute and au naturelle, surely it’s her right to make herself feel better (and beautiful) by breaking out the depilatories. As the questions roar, the undertone of ironic comedy is unmistakable. Who knew the simple act of plucking one’s unibrow could be so fraught with political implications?

Playwright Baker isn’t satisfied to simply frame a heated debate in terms of a highly literate lesbian couple. (Joyce is a high school teacher, Phyllis a college professor.) Body Awareness benefits hugely from the character of Joyce’s son Jared (Eric Burgher, all tightly wound nerves and frustrated anger),  a self-proclaimed “autodidact” with the social skills of a hermit with Tourette’s. In his early 20s, Jared still lives at home, has never had a date and when he’s not at McDonald’s slinging burgers, spends all of his time poring over the Oxford English Dictionary.

The three are thrown into an emotional vortex with the arrival of Body Awareness Week at Phyllis’  Bennington College-like campus. Amid the feminist puppet shows, the refugee camp dance companies, and the scholarly lectures on feminist paradigms in post-modern literature arrives photographer Frank (Joe Jahraus), a lensman who roams the country taking nude photos of women, including very young women.

Phyllis is appalled and all but calls Frank a kiddie-pornographer. Frank insists he empowers women by allowing them to shed their inhibitions (and their clothes.)  Joyce is intrigued, and eventually decides to pose herself. As for Jared, he turns to Frank for some blunt advice about getting girls.

Through it’s 85-minute run time, Body Awareness is seamless merger of a terrific text and an equally deft ensemble. Graeff completes a hat trick with the production. Coming on the heels of The Mercy Seat (our review) and Graceland (our review), this is her third role running at Profiles that defines the very notion of excellence. As Phyllis, she’s an intricate mix of braininess and elitist, of fiercely loyal partner and extremely frustrated de facto step-parent. She’s got a wry, dead-pan delivery that is priceless, yet for all Phyllis’ practical cynicism, Graeff never lets the audience lose sight of the woman’s deeply caring heart.

body-aware02Burgher also builds on a body of work that is ever more impressive, instilling Jared with the raw, raging hurt of a wounded animal and the obnoxious intellect of an idiot-savant. He’s also got a killer sense of comic timing. If you missed him in Men of Tortuga, Things We Said Today, or Graceland (we will never again be able to look at a decorative fruit arrangement without having an involuntary spit-take), this is your chance to see a young actor rapidly approaching the height of his considerable powers.

Then there’s Jahraus as the photographer/interloper.  Understated, slightly arrogant and slightly hostile, he’s a fine fulcrum for trouble. As Joyce, Barb Stasiw is a stand-in for Everywoman of a Certain Age, caught between the limitless demands of her  troubled child and the feminist ideology of her partner.

Thiem has the ensemble in seamless formation throughout, spinning a story of compelling ideas and vivid characters. If you leave Body Awareness mulling the implications of the dreaded male gaze, well, good for you. But for all its feminist theory and academic setting, Body Awareness is mostly a fine slice of storytelling.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Olympia Dukakis reads for American Blues

By Leah A. Zeldes

Olympia-Dukakis Academy Award-winning actress Olympia Dukakis appears in Chicago Monday, Nov. 16, to read from an upcoming American Blues Theater production. The reading, a passage from ABT’s spring 2010 show, "RIPPED: The Living Newspaper Project" by Eduardo Machado and Rick Cleveland, takes place during a benefit for the newly-reconstituted troupe. Dennis Zacek, artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater, will also read.

Highlights of benefit, 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. Monday at the Bridgeview Bank, 4753 N. Broadway, also include live blues by Chicago band The Skirts, an auction of such items as local theater tickets and a walk-on Broadway role, food and drinks. Tickets are $75, $125 for VIP admission, which includes an earlier reception with Dukakis.

Dukakis, whose film credits include Steel Magnolias, Mr. Holland’s Opus and Moonstruck, for which she was named Best Supporting Actress, is a long-time friend of ABT ensemble member Carmen Roman. "I’ve watched this company continuously produce incredible, groundbreaking work," Dukakis said. "The 2009/10 season is no exception. I’m honored to be a part of their benefit celebration, and fully support this inspirational Chicago ensemble."

"Starting from scratch without staff and absolutely no money has certainly been a challenge," said ensemble member Gwendolyn Whiteside, part of the company’s executive/artistic/administrator triumvirate, along with Roman and Heather Meyers.

In March, 23 members of the ensemble left American Theater Company, leaving behind a $1 million annual budget and taking back the American Blues name under which that company formed in 1985. The group, which comprised most of ATC’s actors, departed over differences with its artistic director, P.J. Paparelli, who was hired two years ago from Perseverance Theatre in Alaska. Paparelli had reportedly expelled several members of the company and allowed members increasingly less influence on theatrical decision making.

American Blues Theater members include Cleveland, Dawn Bach, Ed Blatchford, Matthew Brumlow, Kate Buddeke, Casey Campbell, Dennis Cockrum, Lauri Dahl, Tom Geraty, Cheryl Graeff, Lindsay Jones, Kevin R. Kelly, Ed Kross, James Leaming, John Mohrlein, Jim Ortlieb, William Payne, Suzanne Petri, Tania Richard, Editha Rosario, John Sterchi and Stef Tovar.

"I believe the work of the ABT ensemble is vital and important to Chicago’s theater community and our city as a whole," Zacek said.

Review: Profile Theatre’s “The Mercy Seat”

 Commendable performances make best of flawed script

MERCY SEAT - Horizontal Press Photo

Profiles Theatre presents:

The Mercy Seat

by Neil LaBute
directed by Joe Jahraus
thru November 15th (buy tickets)

reviewed Catey Sullivan

With The Mercy Seat, Profiles Theatre continues its long collaboration with Neil LaBute as well as its far shorter but oh-so rewarding work with Cheryl Graeff. The former isn’t in top shape with this elliptical and implausible drama. The latter creates a complex, indelible and exhaustingly authentic character within a deeply flawed play.

The two-hander between Graeff and Darrell W. Cox begins on Sept. 12, 2001. Abby (Graeff), enters her New York apartment breathing through a scarf and emitting powdery ash as she unpacks a sack of groceries. On the couch, gazing into space with a thousand-mile shell-shocked stare is Ben (Cox), seemingly oblivious to the insistent ring of his cell phone and unable to process the apocalyptic scene outside.

Mercy V 4 cropped LaBute’s dialogue gives you the sense of eavesdropping. Coming in mid-conversation, the 100-minute drama is more than half over before it becomes quasi-clear precisely what’s going on here. Who is supposed to be on the receiving end of the all-important call that Abby keeps demanding Ben make? Who keeps calling his cell phone? Why is it so important that he stay away from the windows? What is this “meal ticket” he keeps referring to in tandem with the catastrophe unfolding outside?

While LaBute’s intentionally cryptic sentences become tedious at times, the performances are good enough to make them tolerable and imbue them with authenticity, even as the plot holes start to loom ever larger.. Among the most gaping incongruity is the fact that Ben’s cell phone works impeccably on a day when virtually every cell phone in New York City went dead. Between unanswered calls, Ben and Abby engage in a dark-night-of-the-soul debate about heated moral issues. Thankfully, the dialogue sounds not like a debate but a genuine conversation pocked with stops, starts and things blurted out before they are fully thought through. Eventually, we learn that Ben was at Abby’s apartment on the receiving end of oral sex when the planes hit the Towers. Had he gone to work on time instead of stopping by for a morning blow job, he probably would have been killed.

The two at first seem incredibly self-absorbed. While the world around them is in ruins, they argue about oral sex techniques. They attack each other so relentlessly and with such personal venom, it’s difficult to understand why they’re together at all. That she’s a high powered executive; he’s a schlub whose defining characteristic is passivity makes mystery of their mutual attraction all the more baffling. As LaBute eventually clears that matter up (with some graphic sex talk), the other unknowns of the piece come into view as well.

As he so predictably does, LaBute ends with a twist, this one involving Cox’s miraculously functional cell phone.

What works in this piece is Graeff’s performance as a woman who is both powerful and desperate, self-loathing and strident with pride. Cox has less to work with as a classic LaBute male of few redeeming qualities. Together, the two make you wish Profiles would take a stab at Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

The Mercy Seat continues through Nov. 15 AT Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway. Tickets are $30 and $35. For more information, go to www.profilestheatre.org or call 773/549-1815..

Rating: ««½

 

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Review: ‘Love Person” at Victory Gardens

 

Using the power of multi-platform story-telling, Love Person explores the emotional toll caused by discordant communications.

 

Love Person: "Well, I mean, it's not like I haven't seen people continuing before.  Continuing right out of my life.

 

 Love Person
by Aditi Brennan Kapil
Victory Gardens Theatre

Reviewed by Timothy McGuire

Love Person, by Aditi Brennan Kapil, now playing at Victory Gardens, explores the power of communication by creating a play that equally encompasses sign language, Sanskrit, English and modern forms of written communication within inter-tangled love triangles. The actor and actresses do not carry the plot alone due to the audience being able to visually read the texts and emails that are being sent between the characters. This creates a very realistic pause that exists within modern communication. The use of texting and email in this play also brings to question the power of communication between individuals even when you have no physical Love Person: "OK, you're pissed, I'm sorry."contact. The imperfections of translation are discussed in terms of human emotions so that we have a better understanding for the importance of these communication gaps.

The lead character, Free, is a moody, deaf, lesbian, played by Liz Tannebaum, who accidently forms an emotional bond with her sister’s crush while yearning for someone to honestly communicate with. Free lives with her lover and interpreter Maggie, played by Arlene Malinowski. Their relationship seems logical and could hold a real romance about it since they live together with their own separate language, but there is no warmth between them. Maggie’s outgoing attitude and her own conversations with friends leaves Free feeling isolated.

Ram is a Sanskrit professor studying the translation of Sanskrit poems. Ram is played by Rajesh Bose, who was the original Ram at Mixed Blood Theatre in Minneapolis. His character is unsatisfied with the quality of Sanskrit poems once they are translated, he feels that the original language is far superior and loses some of its true meaning when spoken in English. This is an immediate connection for Free and Ram (even though they argue about it) since Free feels that sign language is inadequately translated into English.

Ram is reluctantly being set-up with Free’s sister. Free’s sister Vic is an English speaking, club-hopping, half-crazy Euro chick. Cheryl Graeff plays Vic‘s extreme emotional highs and lows with an entertaining personality. We are sprung back awake, and laughter is brought back into the theater when she enters the stage. She is not the intellectual or emotional connection that Ram is looking for. Even after Vic’s repeated attempts to attract Ram’s attention, he has no desire to have any sort of relationship with her until he received what he thought was an email from Vic. From that point he started talking through email, sharing his true personality and vulnerabilities with another person who actively shared in this modern form of bonding.

LovePerson: Free signing Maggie

There was a true intimate connection being made, without any physical interaction. The power of the communication was felt in the silence and anticipation while waiting for the next text to appear on screen. For those of us that consistently use texting and instant messaging as a form of communicating, this scenario, directed by Sandy Shinner is a realistic portrayal of the emotions involved while talking in 2009. The sometimes slow and boring moments of waiting for a response, also create an anxious sense of insecurity joined with excitement when you get a response. Liz and Rajesh are able to bring the power of this connection to life as they anticipate their next chance to speak to each other. That is also why the ending felt unfinished or unexplained. Was that connection really that intimate?

Love Person: texting-emailingWe are unable to see the depth of Ram’s character and there is never an emotional connection made with the audience as to why he chooses the path he does for his future. Free’s abrupt affection for her girlfriend Maggie at the end of the play doesn’t seem to fit her character. There is still a lot left unexplained as to why the bond formed through communication was so easy for her to walk away from if it meant so much to her personal happiness. Is she “settling” for Maggie, or do they find a deeper way to communicate through their love?

Love Person is unique in the way that it puts forth a multi-lingual performance. The three languages are used equally as lead languages. The audience is able to follow and fully absorb all forms of communication, which help deepen the impact of the performance. The script does a wonderful job at celebrating differences and poking fun and some humorous stereotypes. In particular, the scenes with Vic and Ram in Vic’s bedroom will make you chuckle.

Rating: «««

Venue: Victory Gardens Theater
When: Runs through June 14th
Tickets: call 773-871-3000

More information regarding Victory Gardens after the fold.

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