REVIEW: Swear Jar (The Annoyance Theatre)

 

Veteran sketch director can’t save “Swear Jar”

 
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Annoyance Theatre presents
 
Swear Jar
 
Directed by Mick Napier
Musical direction by
Lisa McQueen
Annoyance Theatre, 4830 N. Broadway (map)
through May 1st   (more info | tickets$15)

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Annoyance Theatre‘s founder and artistic director Mick Napier has never once directed a sketch show for his own company in its 22-year history. It’s not that he doesn’t have experience in the medium. In fact, Napier’s a bit of a Chicago comedy legend, having directed more than 15 Second City revues and working with the likes of Stephen Colbert and Amy Sedaris.

mick-napier Swear Jar is Napier’s debut sketch revue for his own theatre. And although it definitely embraces the Annoyance aesthetic—which can be described as subversive, in-your-face, punk rock comedy—it never gains the momentum it needs to be a truly good sketch show.

It’s not that there aren’t some shining moments of hilarity. A scene where an alter boy (Chris Witaske) makes a lustful pass at a kind-hearted priest (Andrew Peyton) inverts the played out power dynamic with great success. Another scene (once again starring Witaske opposite straight man Peyton) depicts a desperate suit salesman quickly crumbling before an unsuspecting customer. Witaske’s solid acting skills and captivating stage presence make the demented sketch one of the best in the show.

The musical sketches, save for the closer which is a painfully unfunny and poorly executed piece about fast food, are big winners as well, thanks in part to musical director Lisa McQueen’s strong songwriting abilities. In particular, Vanessa Bayer’s rap about battling Leukemia is a perfect blend of catharsis and comedy.

Like a good stand-up act, a sketch show is only going to work if you can maintain momentum. One dip in the running order is acceptable, but when you have a string of sketches that just aren’t funny, then it’s difficult to keep the audience’s attention, even if the humor is meant to be somewhat shocking.

This was the case for many bits that may have started strong but then, with no real conclusion, just floundered and died on stage. A sketch about a man (Brian Wilson) who gets the bright idea to sit on the car’s gearshift plays out in full just as I describe it. A woman’s-only afternoon tea starts funny as the ladies passive aggressively take pot shots at each other’s failing relationships. It even gets to a second beat as one woman is berated by the hostess’s husband for spilling her drink on the floor. And just as you’re waiting for the final punch of the sketch, it awkwardly and abruptly ends.

showposter Swear Jar would be a much funnier show if it was consistent. There are just too many bumps throughout the revue. Many of the performers seem fairly green to the stage, having difficulty projecting their voices beyond the front two rows. (Witaske and Bayer, however, do stand out as consistently strong players.) The writing, too, is all over the place, often trying harder to shock than to elicit laughter. Although there is something to be said about shocking an audience, contemporary culture has raised the bar on what passes for taboo to a point that this sketch show just doesn’t hit, save for a sketch about a girl with a heavy flow.

With directing Swear Jar, Napier doesn’t abandon the Second City sketch format that inserts short “blackout” pieces between longer sketches, but he does tweak it. There is an outpouring of short, 30-second sketches near the end of the show, which helps bring up the energy at the end. But overall, the revue drags when the comedy just isn’t there, and at other times, the slew of short pieces can feel frantic and choppy. The show could also be trimmed down by 30 minutes. With an intermission, the 10 p.m. revue didn’t end until midnight.

Swear Jar just never hits its stride. Instead it limps across the finish line. There are some great moments and solid performances here and there, but the bulk of the revue feels directionless, which is a shame when you have the talent of Napier in the director’s chair.

 
Rating: ★★
 

RUN: Previews | March 13 and 20 | 10:00 PM | $10  //  Saturday | March 27 – May 1 | 10:00 PM | $15

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REVIEW: Private Lives (Chicago Shakespeare)

Noël Coward skewers conventional morality with droll finesse

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Chicago Shakespeare Theatre presents:

 

Private Lives

 

by Noël Coward
directed by Gary Griffin
thru March 7th (ticket info)

reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

For delivering comic barbs with Cowardesque suave perfection, it’s tough to beat Robert Sella. One expects he could make even the most insipid rom-com crackle, zing and pop through sheer force of his timing and droll finesse. Noel Coward’s Private Lives – wherein Sella is currently stealing the show with his irresistible irreverent panache – is, of course, anything but insipid. It snaps from start to finish with wisdom and witticisms, many at the cost of so-called conventional morality. As Elyot Chase in Chicago Shakespeare’s production of Coward’s sparklingly well-made play, Sella seems born to wear the debonair character’s smoking jacket while tossing off withering repartee with the effortless brilliance of Beethoven practicing his scales. Almost.

private-lives-2 That sterling, razor-witted acumen with Coward’s inarguable wit isn’t quite enough. Yes, Sella can ignite an exquisite maelstrom of delicious comedy simply by flicking a napkin or aping a boxer’s stance. But in addition to humor, Private Lives rests on sexual chemistry, and there, director Gary Griffin’s staging – and Sella – fall short.

When Elyot and his ex-wife Amanda Prynne meet cute whilst on their respective honeymoons to new spouses, the attraction between former spouses is so white-hot that they abandon their new partners and flee for Amanda’s Parisian flat for a solid week of wall-to-wall sex. Or at least, it should be white-hot. Here, Elyot and Amanda (Tracy Michelle Arnold, worldly, brittle and dry as a perfectly aged Savignon Blanc) are more intellectual than sexual soul mates. Quip for quip, Amanda and her ex- are as perfectly matched as Shakespeare’s Kate and Petruchio or Albee’s George and Martha. Watching them spar is a joy. Watching them get busy atop a sleek grand piano? Not so much.

As for Sybil Chase and Victor Prynne – the abandoned half of the two newlywed couples – they’re utterly winning in their indignant conventionality. As the new Mrs. Chase, Chaon Cross is an ingénue with delicate yet unmistakable shadings of a harpy in-training – you just know she’s going to turn into her battle-ax mother by the time she hits 40. And as Amanda’s new husband Victor Prynne, Tim Campbell is a pitch-perfect righteous blockhead, a slab of ham and sensible haircut of a man, all tiresome chivalry and hail-fellow-well-met. He’s the opposite of Sella’s Elyot, physically, morally and intellectually, and the results – both visually and verbally – are hilarious.

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Not so effective is the intermittently and slowly rotating turntable that Griffin employs to give the audience a sense of voyeurism. While we do get to see the Prynne/Chase shenanigans from every angle, that rotation is a distraction – particularly when it starts up after being still for a while. It can be difficult to focus on the dialogue and characters when suddenly the set starts spinning on its axis, no matter how leisurely. Furthermore, the in-the-round staging means everyone in the audience spends at least some time staring at the backs of heads or (during scenes involving people prone on that piano or the purple velvet fainting couch) the soles of feet. It’s frustrating,

All that said, Private Lives is worthy of its ticket price. It’s Sella’s show, and chemistry or no, he nails the subversive genius of Coward’s wit. Factor in Paul Tazewell’s sleek 1930s costume design (the hats alone are to die for) and you’ve got a production that’s sumptuously handsome. As well as extremely funny.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

Private Lives continues through March 7 at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave. Tickets are $55, $68, $75. For more information, call 312/595-5600 or go to www.chicagoshakes.com

Below: First rehearsal – the director talks about staging Private Lives in-the-round

Also, read an interview with director Gary Griffin

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Five last-minute gifts for your Chicago theater-loving friends

Five last-minute gifts for your Chicago theater-loving friends

By Leah A. Zeldes

Still wracking your brain for the perfect gift? Here are a few last minute ideas for the local theater fans on your list.

Theater tour tickets

Take your friends on a tour of a treasure of Chicago’s Theatre District. Modestly priced backstage tours highlight the beautiful architecture and rich performance history of the Loop’s gorgeous historic theaters. Check out the Chicago Theatre Marquee Tour, $12; Auditorium Theatre Tour, $10; and the Broadway in Chicago Venue Tours (each BIC tour covers two theaters from among the Oriental Theatre, the Cadillac Palace and the Bank of America Theatre), $10. If you want to be lavish, throw in a gift card for a post-tour meal at Petterino’s in the Theatre District.

Theater passes

The League of Chicago Theatres’ Play Money is the perfect one- size-fits-all gift. These $25 certificates are redeemable at more than 75 Chicagoland theaters for up to a year, so recipients can choose the play and performance that suits them best. A copy of the Chicagoplays Theater Guide is included. Or, for a versatile gift to a family or a theater-loving friend, a $95 Theatre Building Chicago Pass offers five tickets to any shows at the Lakeview theater complex in the coming year: five admissions at once, one at a time, or in any combination the recipient prefers.

Playwriting classes

Sign the budding dramatist on your list up for instruction from seasoned playwrights at the award-winning Chicago Dramatists or a musical workshop at Theatre Building Chicago. Of course, you’ll have to promise to attend any resulting performances.

Chicago theater books

With express shipping, there’s still time to get copies of these books on the fascinating history of Chicago’s theater scene: A Theater of Our Own: A History and a Memoir of 1,001 Nights in Chicago by longtime Chicago Tribune critic Richard Christiansen; Steppenwolf: Steppenwolf Theatre Company : Twenty-Five Years of an Actor’s Theater, famed photographer Victor Skrebneski‘s book featuring production highlights and portraits of Steppenwolf’s ensemble; and The Second City: Backstage at the World’s Greatest Comedy Theater — one of the early directors at the Second City, Sheldon Patinkin traces the origins of Second City back to 1955 in this book with two audio CDs.

Theater toys

For the theater buff who has everything, how about a Shakespeare action figure, complete with removable book and quill pen? Or a set of playing cards each featuring an insulting remark from The Bard? Chicago Shakespeare has it covered.

Review: The Hypocrites’ “Frankenstein”

Without firm skeleton, confusion and unfocused choices persist

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The Hypocrites present:

Frankenstein

by Mary Shelley
Adapted and directed by Sean Graney
at the Museum of Contemporary Art Stage
through November 1st (program)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Frankenstein3 From the moment the audience enters the MCA stage for The Hypocrites’ rendering of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, adapter/director Sean Graney makes it clear that this production is enamored with the idea of Frankenstein. On one wall, the famous 1931 film version of the story is projected. The opposite wall is plastered with the pages torn from a couple copies of the novel. In adapting the book for the stage, Graney collides a handful of sources together, creating his own monster. Shelley’s novel provides the heart and mind, but other sections are lanced from Macbeth, Faust, and ideas from inventors like Oppenheimer and Edison. The finished creature, though, chooses riffing on themes over delving into character or plot. Without a firm skeleton, the production sinks into confusion and unfocused choices.

Graney’s adaptation plays heavily with Shelley’s original (which she wrote when she was 19). The sprawling novel is condensed into a four-character piece, focusing heavily on the monster’s (Matt Kahler) desire for a wife. Paralleling the creature’s search for companionship is the engagement of Dr. Viktor Frankenstein (John Byrnes) to his sister, Elizabeth (Stacy Stoltz). Graney’s script could use more explication; although powerfully presented, the incestuous relationship is not deeply explored. This lack of detail flaws many aspects of the story—the characters seem more like symbols than believable people (or daemons). Because it is difficult to connect to the characters, the element of tragedy is excised. It also stifles the themes this production tries to shout out so loudly.

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It doesn’t help that Graney’s staging sometimes adds to the confusion inherent in the script. Like most Hypocrite shows, all aspects of Frankenstein are beautifully designed. Bloodied baby doll parts hang from the grid, and the space is filled with staticky old-school televisions. Some of these choices are pretty hard to decipher. I still can’t figure out how performing the play in front of the film version enlightens the text. It felt like the play wanted to be far more self-reverential than it was. Even though the audience is confronted by different versions of Frankenstein on all fronts, the actors only reference the film a handful of times. Viktor pulls out a hard copy of Shelley’s original, but this is utilized even less. The design celebrates the fact that in the 200 years since Frankenstein was first published there have been a myriad of takes on the story; the script and staging fail to be as self-aware. This disconnect between design and performance drags down the production.

Brynes’ representation of the famous doctor rightly portrays the passion of a man playing at God. However, he can’t figure out how to layer Viktor quite right, and the full impact of his gradual ruination is glossed over. As Dr. Frankenstein’s sister/bride-to-be, Stoltz is motherly and soft. It would be nice to see more of Elizabeth; although Stoltz is pretty clear, the tract is still hard to follow. Jessie Fisher is sweetly innocent as the Strange Girl, a character created by Graney. The richest performance in the bunch, though, comes from Kahler as the famous monster. His poetical musings on death, creation, and loneliness are incredibly poignant considering he looks like an abomination for most of the show. His moving philosophizing is contrasted sharply by his propensity for extreme violence, reminding us, after all, that this show was intended for the Halloween season. Probably the best scene in the show is when the Girl is mercilessly beaten by Frankenstein’s creation.

The promenade style that Graney has developed over the years falls short here. While in certain spaces the intermingling of actors and audience is enlightening (like last year’s Edward II at Chicago Shakes), here the stage is filled with too many people and key moments are lost in the crowd.

Graney’s adaptation definitely has potential. Workshopping the piece would do it a lot of good, strengthening the plot to match the powerful themes. In its current form, though, it is hard to sew all the pieces together into a cohesive beast.

Rating: ★★½

 

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Photos by Paul Metreyeon

Adaptor/Director: Sean Graney
Music: Kevin O’Donnell
Lyrics: Sean Graney
Cast: John Byrnes, Jessie Fisher, Matt Kahler, Stacy Stoltz
Lighting: Jared Moore
Sound: Mikhail Fiksel
Set: Tom Burch
Video Projections: Mike Tutaj
Costumes: Meghan Raham
Fight Choreography: Matt Hawkins