REVIEW: Dead Pile (XIII Pocket Ensemble)

  
  

Vegan play is all potatoes, no meat

  
  

Cast from XIII Pocket's  'Dead Pile': (left to right) Allie Long, Andy Lutz,  Justin James Farley (center), Mark Minton and Chip Davis.  Photo credit: Michael Litchfield

   
XIII Pocket Ensemble presents
   
Dead Pile
  
Written by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by Megan Shuchman
at Theater Wit, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
thru Feb 27  |  tickets: $12-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

There are a couple positive things about XIII Pocket’s Dead Pile. For one, the play features some impressive acting talent. Justin James Farley as the animal-rights investigator protagonist delivers his lines with a distinct genuineness, even when the script is laughably melodramatic. Likewise, Andy Lutz (making his Chicago debut) injects some much-needed levity into his role as the alcoholic, antagonistic farmhand.

The other compliment I’ll pay is that – for a play that centers around such hot-button issues as animal rights, food production and ethical veganism – it avoids the pitfall of being too preachy. We never get that worn diatribe about the systemic abuses that plague dairy farms and meat producers. After all, propaganda (even if it is propaganda that this theater critic agrees with) does not necessarily make for good storytelling. Unfortunately, even without the predictable soapboxing, Dead Pile is dead on arrival.

Scene from XIII Pocket's 'Dead Pile' - (top) Andy Lutz (bottom) Allie Long and Justin James Farley. Photo credit: Michael LitchfieldThe play is about an animal rights investigator named Jeremy who is sent out on assignment by his non-profit boss (Chip Davis) to infiltrate a dairy farm. Once on the farm, Jeremy encounters a colorful cast of trite, two-dimensional caricatures. We have Russell (Mark Minton), the farmer’s progressive son who wants to transform his daddy’s property into an organic farm. Then there’s R.J. (Lutz), the tough farmhand who’s aggressive with women, yells at football games and likes beer too much. And finally we have Nance (Allie Long), the superfluous love interest who has bigger dreams than to be bound to an Indiana farm.

As Jeremy conducts his investigation, he’s continually pressured by his non-profit supervisors to gather animal abuse evidence so they can make a bust. Meanwhile, he’s warming up to Nance and Russell, which could compromise matters. It also means he’s probably not a competent investigator, but I guess that’s beside the point.

Playwright Laura Jacqmin‘s inhumane treatment of the audience is worthy of a PETA investigation. She muddles the play with unnecessary details while simultaneously robbing us of what should be the most dramatic scenes. The fact that Jeremy is black is brought up too many times without enough justification for its presence. Are we supposed to be surprised that not all Indiana farmers are racist bigots? And why end the first act with a frantic voice over, when you could just stage what sounds like a really engaging scene? And what about the big reveal, that moment that the audience has been anticipating the entire play where Jeremy’s status is revealed? It is done so swiftly and with no impact that it’s pointless that he reveals it at all.

Another major flaw is the melodrama. The biggest offending scene is one in which Jeremy and Nance share what might be the most forced intimate moment I have ever seen staged. Seriously, this scene has everything, from a Lifetime-esque sob story about Jeremy’s invalid brother to Nance begging Jeremy to take her with him when he leaves because, after all, anywhere is better than here.

I reserve additional criticism for Megan Shuchman, whose direction comes across as thoughtless. What purpose does it serve to have Davey visible to the audience throughout the entire play? What is the deal with the set design? With all the thrown about windowpanes, wood scraps and bric-a-brac it resembles the eye of a tornado more than a farm. Why waste stage space with an office and a bedroom you barely use while your actors are forced to largely perform in an ambiguous setting?

So while I applaud Jacqmin for striving to craft a story that refuses to preach to the choir, I fault her for producing an amateur script where the audience is robbed of sympathetic characters and climaxes. Concentrate on writing a good play with a great story, compelling scenes and dynamic characters. Without that as your base, your audience will wonder, "Where’s the beef?"

     
     
Rating: ★½
   
   

Dead Pile continues thru February 27th, running Thursdays-Sundays, February 4-27, at 8pm.  Performances occur at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont, Chicago. Tickets priced at  $20 general admission and $12 student/senior. To purchase tickets, call the Stage 773 box office at 773-327-5252.  More info at http://www.xiiipocket.com.

Dead Pile - XIII Pocket Theater - banner

        
        

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REVIEW: Cash (XIII Pocket Ensemble)

        
        

Pissed off by Christmas frivolity? Then try ‘Cash’

        
        

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XIII Pocket Ensemble presents
  
Cash
  
Written by Stephen Louis Grush
Directed by
Jacob Lorenz
at
Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

“Hello! I’m Johnny Cash.” XIII Pocket presents Cash with the tagline “The Man in Black, and the Death of the American Dream.” Music icon Johnny Cash sang soulful songs of the human condition. He became a legend singing about doing the wrong thing under the influence of drugs, lust and incarceration. All these themes twist into XIII Pocket’s introduction of folks struggling with being poor, bad, or obsessed. This Cash is less about Johnny and more about the lack of money. The monologue and dialogue vignettes are transitioned together by Johnny Cash songs. The JC selections are a more obscure sampling than his familiar mainstream blockbusters. So, it’s uncertain whether or not the songs mirror the IMGP5112stories. What is certain is that “playwright Stephen Louis Grush dulls the bandage-ripping drama with booze. On a stage decorated with dangling naked light bulbs, the misery and pain of every day Americans is illuminated from the shadows in Cash.

Under the direction by Jacob S. Lorenz, the cast is in intoxicated angst. In a three part vignette, Chip DavisWalks The Line” between crazy and drunk. He pontificates about snake dancing, eyeball donors and being someone’s bitch. Looking like a cross between Jesus and the band Alabama, Davis rants with an increasing dark intensity. Paige Smith and Mark Minton are a fury of “Hurt” as their drinking game spins horrifically out-of-control. Smith and Minton are uncomfortably real with spitting and gun pointing ferocity. Plagued by a “Ring of Fire”, Caitlin McGlone is poignant and funny as a woman screwing her cheating ex-husband. McGlone speaks directly to the audience with the familiar I-don’t–love-him-I-just-wish-I-didn’t-have-to-love-him logic of an unhealthy relationship. McGlone engages perfectly in her ordinariness. Laura Rook and Sean Driscoll have “It Ain’t Me, Babe” banter. The disdain is evident in a coupling crumble. Heath Cordts is primed for “Folsom Prison Blues”. Behind a pulpit, Cordts unemotionally describes a killing spree based around his favorite number ’13.’ Cordts is hysterical as a controlled disturbed freak. In fact, the entire cast is despicable in their portrayals of gritty folks not dealing in reality.

Getting Cash takes the right mindset. It’s not a show about Johnny Cash. It’s not a “Behind The Music” bio-pic on the celebrity. The songs referenced above are not heard during the performance. If you’re looking for a Man in Black to croon familiar tunes, Million Dollar Quartet is a better choice for you to get ‘Cashed’. But if you are tired of holiday plays; find yourself rooting for Scrooge and Grinch to the way they are, or nearly vomit every time you hear an obnoxious carol, this show is Cash-friendly for you! Perhaps, the only Anti-Christmas spirit option available, Cash sings speaks volumes.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
  
    

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Cash plays through December 19th, and can be seen Thursdays and Sundays at 8pm and Fridays and Saturdays at 10:30pm.  All performances at Stage 773 in Chicago. Running Time for Cash is 65-minutes with no intermission.

3-Words: The better half of a “Jackson” duet, Bill describes it with “disjointed, Cashless, negative.”

  
  

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Review: side project’s “Rewind

‘Rewind’: exquisite production, downer play

 

Prod - Noah, Jim, Elisha, Scaff - couch 3

The side project theatre company presents:

Rewind

By Laura Eason
Directed by Anna C. Bahow
Through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

“It wasn’t supposed to be this way. They were the next big thing in rock. But Noah walked away. Elisha married that asshole. And now Jim’s dead — leaving them all to wonder — ‘How did we get here?'”

Prod - Noah, Jim and Elisha - couch That spoiler comes straight out of promotions for Rewind, up-and-coming Chicago playwright Laura Eason’s new play, now in world-premiere by the side project, in Rogers Park, so I’m not giving anything away. The trouble with plays that start at the end is that they tend to lack suspense.

While the flashback can be an effective theatrical technique to fill audiences in on the back story, it can go too far. This play doesn’t flashback so much as reverse crawl.

Partly inspired by the playwright’s own experiences in Chicago’s indie music scene and influenced by the 1996 suicide of Jim Ellison, front man for the Chicago power pop trio Material Issue, Rewind begins in 1998, when the members of his onetime band, childhood friend Noah and ex-lover Elisha, find the body of Jim, a talented but troubled and unsuccessful songwriter and musician. Then the drama steps back — rewinds, get it? — through the threesome’s life to the band’s beginnings in 1981.

We wait for some startling revelation or inspiring moment, but none appear. What we get is an old, old story — familiar to anyone who knows anything about the music business: Talent is not enough; you also need perseverance, responsibility, belief in yourself and a good deal of luck.

As the play progresses backwards, we see the band’s deteriorating relationships; Jim’s insecurity over whether his music is really good enough; issues of personal loyalty vs. business expediency; troubles with their record label; their opportunistic manager; the bitter contrast of a younger musician achieving the success that’s eluded them; and, finally, their hopeful start. The depressing history of a million failed garage bands.

Prod - Noah, Jim and Ray - couch 2

Side project presents the play in its typically flawless way — perhaps unintentionally reinforcing the theme: Fine acting, an effective set and excellent staging and direction aren’t enough, either.

Chip Davis is suitably intense as Jim, and Zach Buell nicely expressive as his always-supportive pal, Noah. Cyd Blakewell plays the somewhat selfish Elisha with just the right blend of innocence and self-interest. Supporting actors Shane Kenyon and Brett Schneider do good work as well.

Sound Designer Misha Fiksel hunted out local music from the period (a pity it’s only used incidentally). Set Designer Annette Vargas dappled the 30-seat theater with bright spray-paint graffiti and hung the walls with colorful band posters from Chicago print house Screwball Press that list all local indie music spots of the period: Lounge Ax, Double Door, the Empty Bottle, the Aragon Ballroom.

The audience sits on two sides of the intimate stage, where Director Anna C. Bahow makes adept use of the few stage furnishings to convey 17 different scenes. She moves her cast in and out with exquisite pacing.

Yet although Rewind is performed without intermission in just 90 minutes, its utter predictability makes it seem much longer.

 

Rating: ★★½

 

Note: Allow time to find street parking.