REVIEW: 1985 (Factory Theater)

 

Strong performances penalized by repetitive punchlines

 

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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: The Better Doctor (Silent Theater Company)

Multi-talented performers struggle to find show’s unique voice

 

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Bootstraps Comedy Theater, in association with Silent Theatre presents
   
 
The Better Doctor
  
written and directed by Matt Lyle
at
Prop Thtr, 3504 N. Elston (map)
through June 26th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Silent Theater Company’s gimmick is what it sounds like: theatre in the style of old silent movies. It opens the door for some awesome physical performances and it even creates a template by which to tell topical stories in a universal way. Such is the case with The Better Doctor, Matt Lyle’s new play about sick, broke kids and the heroic tramp Velma (Kim Lyle), who is dedicated to finding them healthcare.

better-doctor-3 The show begins when the musicians take the stage.  Eric Loughlin on piano and Chris Jett on percussion sit on either side of the stage, bookending the action. The show does not lack energy, or innovation. Matt Lyle, who also directs, comes up with authentic and entertaining bits. Old-fashioned showmanship takes over as the performers charm the audience with sleight of hand tricks and big, blown-out characters.

The plot is simple, campy and a direct throwback to the simplistic storylines that showcased the comedic genius of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, but with a new, political twist. There are ways in which the live-action adaptation of the stylized, antiquated form of silent movie performance works very well. The exaggerated physicality is extremely theatrical, and evokes the feeling of a classic mime routine. The performers take on the athletic challenge with aplomb and grace. Heather Forsythe, who is well utilized for a supporting player demonstrates a knack for physical comedy, and graces the stage with a youthful sass. Her performance, while presentational as her fellow actors, betrays the hint of grounded humanity that made Buster Keaton a true comedic master. The same can be said for lead actor Samuel Zelitch, who’s bumbling medical intern character is straight from the classics.

Kim Lyle’s performance is plucky and confident, and it’s nice to see a woman hero in this context. As Velma, she uses her brawn and wit to find medical care for the three sick little scamps, joining forces with a Buster Keaton-ish intern. The trap and the stone-face team up to fight the powers that be, in this case the wicked Chief of Medicine, played by actor/improviser Mike Brunlieb. The play unfolds in an episodic manor, similar to the silent films that inspired it. Although the scenes progress to create a fluid piece, this is better-doctor-5secondary; each scene’s primary purpose is to open the door for comedy bits.

Around three quarters of the way through, The Better Doctor begins to lag.  During the big chase scene, which gets off to a funny, if precious, start, ends up spiraling down a dark road. As the chase dissolves into a keystone cops parody, the The Better Doctor becomes a show that relies too heavily on a clever premise, without taking ownership of itself. The Better Doctor, while paying faithful homage to the silent greats, has too weak a grasp on its own voice. A silent play that is too stylistically referential, The Better Doctor is to be cutesy at times, and gimmicky at it’s worst.  Bootstraps Comedy Theater needs to revisit this play, and cultivate what is universally true about this show. A little more honesty, and The Better Doctor could be a four star show.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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