REVIEW: Sketchbook X (Collaboraction)

Collaboraction celebrates the creative spirit with Sketchbook X

 Pictured (left to right): Beth Stelling, Maari Suorsa, Mary Hollis Inboden and Meg Johns in The New Colony Ensemble’s world premiere “Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche,” one of the 19 original short works in SKETCHBOOK  X, a mixed media festival of theatre, music and video presented by Collaboraction, now in its 10th year. The show runs through June 27, 2010 at The Chopin Theatre. http://www.collaboraction.org

   
Collaboraction presents
   
Sketchbook X:   People’s Choice
   
at Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through June 27th  |  tickets: $20-$35   |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

What is a play exactly? Is it a dramatic staging of a story? Is it people moving around in a physical space in front of an audience? And furthermore, what separates a play from a sketch or a scene or even a performance art installation?

Pictured (left to right): Jeffrey Gitelle, Ian McLaren and Emily Shain in “Eighty Four” written by Cory Tamler, directed by Dan Stermer. “Eighty Four” is one of the 19 original short works in SKETCHBOOK  X, a mixed media festival of theatre, music and video presented by Collaboraction, now in its 10th year. The show runs through June 27 at The Chopin Theatre These are the questions I was left pondering after seeing Collaboraction’s tenth annual Sketchbook festival, a showcase of original mixed media performances. This  year’s theme was “exponential.” Yes, it is fairly nebulous, and this is perhaps one reason why the output lacks a certain concreteness and cohesion. Characters and plot become secondary to evoking visceral emotions. Sketchbook X in many ways is more circus than drama.

This isn’t to say that the finished product is all spectacle and no substance. There are some standout pieces.

The one that clearly stands out the most is Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche. Unlike other pieces that become crushed under their own weight, Five Lesbians is a witty, stylized comedy. Devised by Evan Linder, the play features five women (Sarah Gitenstein, Mary Hollis Inboden, Beth Stelling, Maari Suorsa and Megan Johns) who head a local social club centered around a shared love of quiche. The women click and cluck like 1950s southern church ladies and harass the audience. When communist Russia bombs the outside world, all quiche is destroyed. The women go into a tizzy, which leads to their outings.

Five Lesbians works because it is the most refined piece of the festival. The script feels fully fleshed out, the actors are well aware of their characters and the comedic timing is impeccable. There is a lot of commitment, and there is little ambiguity. It has an aesthetic all its own that is so engaging I’d pay to see a full-length production.

Pictured (left to right): Beth Stelling, Maari Suorsa, Mary Hollis Inboden and Meg Johns in The New Colony Ensemble’s world premiere “Five Lesbians Eating a Quiche,” one of the 19 original short works in SKETCHBOOK  X, a mixed media festival of theatre, music and video presented by Collaboraction, now in its 10th year. The show runs through June 27, 2010 at The Chopin Theatre

Other standouts include Sacrebleu (devised and performed by Dean Evans, Molly Plunk and Anthony Courser), a pantomimed, slapstick comedy about two eccentric French fur trappers. The short monologue The Blueberry (written by Sean Graney and featuring Celeste Januszewski) is a thoughtful meditation on existence that explains string theory with blueberry imagery.

Other pieces, however, just don’t pan out. What I’m Looking For (written by Brett C. Leonard and featuring Joel Gross and Heather Bodie) is little more than a heavy-handed music video for a Rufus Wainwright song. Meanwhile, The Untimely Death of  Adolf Hitler (written by Andy Grigg and featuring Eddie Karch, Anthony Moseley, Erin Myers, Greg Hardigan and Dan Krall) lacks enough wit to drive the piece beyond its premise. But you can’t expect all the pieces to be gems. Besides, if you don’t like something, just wait 7 to 10 minutes for another play.

Sketchbook-Four-Women As usual, Collaboraction has succeeded in making the festival feel like a big event. The interior of the Chopin Theatre is awash in glowing light and fog. Two large screens flank the sides of the stage and streamers stretch from the floor to the ceiling. It all makes for a breath-taking first impression.

If you want to see all 19 pieces in a row, you’ll have to see the show on a Saturday. Be warned, though. It’s a 4.5-hour long journey, though you are encouraged to come and go as you please.

Overall, Sketchbook X is a mixed bag of intriguing works. The majority of the pieces lack refinement, but there are a few plays that are polished treasures. The theme gets lost among the many productions, but I don’t think that’s the point. Rather, Sketchbook is more of a party that aims to celebrate the creative spirit, and in that sense, it succeeds.

   
   
Rating:  ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: Sweet Tea (About Face Theatre)

Satisfyingly Refreshing

 

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About Face Theatre presents
   
Sweet Tea: Black Gay Men of the South
   
Written and performed by E. Patrick Johnson
Directed by
Daniel Alexander Jones
at
Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave. (map)
through May 29th  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

I love personal essays. It’s my favorite literary genre. In fact, I love them so much that in addition to writing for this site, I run a personal essay reading series (Essay Fiesta). So I like to think I have a pretty good eye and ear for the telling and retelling of individual’s stories.

Actor and writer E. Patrick Johnson seems to like personal essays as well. His new one-man performance piece, Sweet Tea, is a dramatic account of the lives of gay Southern black men. The tales are all true. About six years ago, Johnson assumed the role of journalist and interviewed a number of subjects for his book that bares the same name as the play. A staged reading of some of these MSB_7710tales followed, which then eventually developed into the material’s current incarnation.

The result of all this labor is a compelling documentary that gives voice to an oft-ignored community, a community that represents a double minority in an area of the country where not being a heterosexual white man can jeopardize your safety.

Johnson pieces together a patchwork of unique characters, all of whom are bonded by their similar heritages and sexualities, but whom possess a varied array of viewpoints. There’s the elderly Countess Vivian, born 1912, who speaks while holding a staff and carries himself as a humble matriarch of Southern black gay culture. There’s the soft-spoken Freddie, who tells about how he’d slash bullies with a razor when he was picked on in school. And then there’s Johnson himself, who adds an extra layer of intimacy and vulnerability to the play by divulging his own stories about his life.

The play is divided up by topic. For each topic, which includes coming out, sex, love/relationships and HIV/AIDS, a handful of characters chime in about their own experiences. Some of these monologues induce laughter and joy, celebrating the diversity of humankind. Others are deeply depressing, reflecting the self-hate that has been instilled within many gay black men of the South.

In particular, the portion of the show devoted to religion and church is keenly revealing. Many of Johnson’s subjects have a complex, and often paradoxical, relationship with the church. One even goes so far to say that there are more gay men at service than there are at the clubs. But despite the fact that gays are the backbone of the institutional part of the faith, they are also preached against and reviled. This upsets one character, who views his homosexuality as a sin. He reasons that the church should welcome such sinners, clumping together murderers and gays in the same sentence, while failing to realize the extent of his self-hatred.

Johnson effortlessly transitions from one character to the next, assuming more than a dozen affectations. Sometimes the character will erupt out of nowhere, while at other times Johnson himself will summon the subject. His tools are his voice and his physicality, which he manipulates throughout the show. A screen abutting the stage flashes the name of the speaker, which helps the audience identify which character Johnson has just morphed into.

   
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The only criticism I have for Johnson’s performance is his stumbling. Understandably there’s a lot of material to cover in this piece, so line flubs are forgivable to an extent. But there were several times where the words became jumbled, and for Johnson to recover, he had to briefly break character.

Daniel Alexander Jones’ direction is decent, though superfluous at times. Often Johnson will be fumbling with a jar or stringing a strand of beads onto a tree for no apparent reason. Perhaps it’s poetic, but it’s meaning is lost on me. It’s not so much of a distraction as it is a missed opportunity. I would have rather seen action that falls in line more directly with the stories, whether acting out anecdotes or assuming the posture each character possessed while being interviewed by Johnson.

The idea of doing a documentary as a play is an intriguing one, and, overall, it works. However, I wonder whether the staged reading of these same interviews would not have been just as, if not more, compelling. To the piece’s credit, Johnson’s performance does breath life into these words, which certainly makes for a vibrant performance and, as the personal essay genre necessitates, he successfully conveys the truth of his subject’s lives in a way that is honest, non-judgmental and entertaining.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Extra Credit:

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Review: Neo-Futurists’ “Fear”

Just in time for Halloween

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Neo-Futurists present:

Fear

Conceived and curated by Noelle Krimm
running through October 31st  (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Just in time for Halloween, with Fear, Noelle Krimm and cast at the Neo-Futurarium tout themselves as “the thinking man’s haunted house.” A walking-tour based on the works of Edgar Allan Poe, Fear certainly will give you something to think about—but will also carry your experience far beyond any cerebral appreciation.

Fear-2 Fear is there to throw the audience off balance, to make them apprehensive about what is coming next, to subvert the mundane internal presumptions of control and reasonable expectation that help to make life manageable and endurable. The production doesn’t need to splatter gore or make you blindly stick your hand into a bowl of spaghetti—the realized uneasiness of life’s exigencies is enough to terrify.

Thus Krimm and company rely, not just on Poe’s obsessions with madness, terror, and degeneration, but also on a modern American lexicon of horror, wherein box-cutters and Dixie cups filled with—what? Kool-Aid?–take on sinister meaning just by being silently presented. Old tech and new are thrown together to suggest the disarray of history and the precariousness of preservation.

The dances and puppet shows are childlike, but are not there to show us happy fables. Fear highlights our most basic fears: of personal safety, of injury, of strangers and strangeness, of both physical and mental illness. It is a romp through the fears we suppress just to make it through life, even if we must all submit in the end.

  While the angels, all pallid and wan,
Uprising, unveiling, affirm
That the play is the tragedy, “Man”
And its hero, the Conqueror Worm.
—–The Conqueror Worm
 

Most of all it is fun–so catch Fear if you dare. The tour involves several sets of stairs, so accessibility is a concern. With enough interest, the tour may extend beyond Halloween.

Enjoy.

 

Rating:  «««½

 

Extra contributors: Rachel Claff, Matt Hawkins, Seth Bockley, Chloe Johnston, Mindy Myers, Ren Velarde, Bernie McGovern and Dan Kerr-Hobert

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