REVIEW: Funk It Up About Nothin’ (Chicago Shakespeare)

     
     

Holla Q Bros – ‘Funk it Up’ is da bomb!

     
     

Funk it Up Cast (left to right) - DJ Adrienne Sanchez, Jillian Burfete, GQ, Ericka Ratcliff, Postell Pringle, JQ and Jackson Doran. Photo by John W. Sisson Jr.

  
Chicago Shakes and Merrigong Theatre Company presents
  
Funk It Up About Nothin’
   
Adapted and Directed by JQ and GQ
at
Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand (map)
thru Feb 13  | 
tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

One of our great regrets of 2008 was missing Funk It Up About Nothin’, a “hip-hoptation” of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing by a pair of brothers who go by JQ and GQ. It you did likewise, we urge you to run, not walk, to get a ticket to this raptastic take on Shakespeare’s equally brilliant comedy.

The Q Brothers, GQ (top) and JQ (bottom), co-creators and directors of Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's 'Funk It Up about Nothin' at Navy Pier. Photo by Bill Burlingham.Fear not if you’re someone who leans more toward classic rock than the frenzied spin of contemporary scratch ‘n burn djs or the rapid-fire beats of rappers. You definitely do not need to be a hip-hop hipster to appreciate the whipsmart wordplay and percussive joys of Funk It Up. Were Shakespeare alive, dare we say, he would surely love what the Qs have done with “Much Ado”.

The key to the piece’s success is this: The Q Brothers are all about the text. As both directors and adaptors of the piece, they demonstrate a deep understanding of it, and from that well of knowledge, they create an adaptation wherein the words bounce, ricochet, rocket, rattle and hum with all the smarts, heart and – most importantly – the wicked humor of the original. Funk It Up is an hour-long word party that remains true to its source in terms of plot, characters and tone.

The cast, all of whom play multiple roles, spits out the verbiage like master poet slammers. As MC Lady B (Beatrice), Ericka Ratcliff is all sass and strut, a ferocious wit packaged in latex, fishnets and bling, deploying more brains of a Mensa member and more crackling sex appeal than a studio full of gyrating video vixens. As Benedick, JQ swaggers like a peacock, loving the single life and bragging about the ladies with a preening vanity that doesn’t quite conceal the one-woman heart that lies beneath his rep.

One of the (many) joys of Funk It Up is the attention paid to the supporting characters. Sure they’re broad, but they are also as well-defined as the leads – right down to the bumptious groundlings.

     
MC Lady B (Ericka Ratcliff) proclaims her love for Benedick (JQ) in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Funk It Up About Nothin'.  Photo by John W. Sisson, Jr. Hero (Jillian Burfete) learns how to be a diva from MC Lady B (Ericka Ratcliff), in Chicago Shakespeare Theater's Funk It Up About Nothin' at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. Photo by John W. Sisson Jr.

As Lady B’s cousin Hero, Jillian Burfete makes the ingénue amusingly simple. Hero is one of Shakespeare’s flatter characters – she’s pretty, and innocent and that’s about it. Burfete uses that one-dimensionality to wonderful comic advantage, making Hero a dim but enthusiastic princess whose head is full of unicorns and rainbows and whose brow furrows with effort whenever she’s called on to understand anything involving more than, oh, two syllables.

GQ is a hoot as the bastard brother Don John, whose clarion call to funk up Hero’s wedding is absolutely infectious. He’s also a terrific Sheriff Dingleberry, “part pimp, part police”, and part “Shaft” homage. As Claudio, Jackson Doran gives the feckless youth the demeanor of an earnest frat boy. And Postell Pringle is utterly riotous as the prince Don Pedro and as Dingleberry’s flamingly flamboyant lieutenant.

In all, Funk It Up is electric, an hour-long onslaught that combines the best parts of a grooving concert, a rip-roaring good story and a night bopping at the clubs. And as the dj who provides the electronic foundation of all the cunning linguistic gymnastics, Adrienne Sanchez brings the noise and the funk, ensuring that the beat goes on throughout the merry war of words.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

 

 

Scene from 'Funk It Up' - Borachio (JQ, left) and Don John (GQ, right) lure Claudio (Jackson Doran). Photo by John W. Sisson, Jr.

All photos by John W. Sisson Jr.

 

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REVIEW: A Brief History of Helen of Troy (Steep Theatre)

Desperate Beauty for Desperate Times

 

 Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy by Mark Schultz at Steep Theatre Chicago

   
Steep Theatre presents
   
A Brief History of Helen of Troy
   
Written by Mark Schultz
Directed by Joanie Schultz
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through October 30  |  tickets: $22   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Few publications are as fantastically cruel as the beauty magazine. Its digitally manipulated glossy images sell women an impossible dream of eternal youth, svelte luxury and painless desirability. They sell women the dream of womanhood soaked with sexual power and full of the unshakeable confidence that, supposedly, goes with that power. Of course, they also sell the products that promise easy access to that power. They sell, to women searching to escape life’s boredom, banal ugliness and suffering. Millions of Madame Bovary’s flip through their slick pages every month, devouring the ephemeral world within them–a lush and perfect beauty world that their own lives will never realize.

Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy by Mark Schultz at Steep Theatre Chicago Heaven help the girl who buys into these magazines’ degenerative gospel. Mark Schultz’s award-winning play, A Brief History of Helen of Troy, tries to capture the pitiful madness of Charlotte (Caroline Neff), a girl who has truly drunk the Kool-Aid. Since Charlotte’s mom has died recently and her dad, Harry (Peter Moore), sits night after night staring at the tube in a near-catatonic state, Charlotte grabs hold of beauty mania and wanders far, far off the reservation. She pursues the career option of becoming a porn star with her high school guidance counselor, Gary (Michael Salinas), and pathetically offers blow-jobs to confidently callous jerks like Freddie (Nick Horst)—all in her desperate drive for attention, appreciation and a more glorious future than her current present as the real nowhere girl.

“You can’t keep needing so much,” says Harry to Charlotte over breakfast, trying to stifle his own needs in the wake of grief. Yet truer words could not be spoken about his daughter. Charlotte is one aching black hole of female neediness. The trouble is, without mom or, effectively, dad to guide her through raging adolescence, all she has to turn to is a teen culture in which stardom matters more than substance and image determines one’s future.

Steep Theatre’s production struggles to make Charlotte’s growing madness consistently real. Under the direction of Joanie Schultz, the production achieves its ends only by fits and starts. Mark Schultz’s language is gorgeous and often hits Charlotte’s mania right on the head. “Tragedy is so beautiful,” she says to Franklin (Brandon J. Thompson), the boy she really wants. “Your life could be so tragic if you let it.” As for professing porn star aspirations to Gary, “I was made for more. Some of us were made for more. I know it.” If Chekhov’s three sisters are constantly yearning for Moscow, then Charlotte longs, not just to be prettier, but to be legendary in her beauty—just like mom.

But the play is worth seeing for its language and themes. Unevenness from scene to scene does not mean that all is lost. Scenes between Charlotte and her gal pal Heather (Katy Boza) crackle with the exchange between darkness and levity that Neff and Boza’s coyly balanced Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy at Steep Theatre Chicago 2performances deliver. The scenes between Charlotte and her guidance counselor tip one into queasy vertigo, given Salinas’ gift to go from stiff propriety to sleazy charm without a hitch. Nick Horst, as Freddie, does arrogant asshole right–the unmistakable stench of privilege rises from his boast, “Everyone goes down on me and everyone swallows. Big deal.”

Strange that the scenes that falter most are those where Charlotte faces men who could really give a damn about her. Neff’s interactions with Thompson and Moore lose their bearings. That may sound really absurd, since Schultz pushes these characters into over-the-top, melodramatic surrealism. Charlotte reaches her heights in her crazy longing with Franklin and Harry. Nevertheless, something realistic must be fashioned out of the all-out collision between Charlotte’s fantasies and cold reality in these scenes, or the audience just can’t and won’t buy it. When Charlotte and Harry, or Charlotte and Franklin, go over the top, the audience has to be willing to go with them. Without a connection to these scenes that produce solid empathy, Charlotte just becomes another statistic in the cultural war on real girls.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

 Steep Theatre - Helen of Troy poster

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REVIEW: The Emperor’s New Clothes (Chicago Shakes)

A fun and exciting new family musical

 

emperor's new clothes - entire cast

   
Chicago Shakespeare Theater  presents
 
The Emperor’s New Clothes
   
Book by David Holstein
Music/Lyrics by
Alan Schmuckler
Directed by
Rachel Rockwell
at
Chicago Shakespeare Theatre, Navy Pier (map)
through August 29th  |  tickets: $18-$23  |  more info

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

emperor's new clothesThe Emperor’s New Clothes, the classic children’s fable, has been fancifully modernized by Chicago Shakespeare Theater, who commissioned a new musical based on the Hans Christian Anderson story with music and lyrics by Alan Schmuckler and book by David Holstein

In the original tale, the Emperor is sold an outfit made out of what he believes to be invisible fabric. He is told that only intelligent people can see it, so, not wanting to be  thought foolish, he pretends that he sees clothing where there is none. All of his royal servants and most of the townspeople go along with him, not wanting to be called stupid. Finally, a child watching the Emperor walk by, calls out that the Emperor is not wearing anything at all. All of the people in the town get a real kick out of this, and the Emperor is humiliated. 

The Emperor’s New Clothes at Chicago Shakespeare begins with the same basic premise, but blends the classic fairy tale themes with modern conundrums. Sam (Megan Long), the Emperor’s idealistic, college bound daughter, wants her father to get over his materialistic obsession with clothes, and open his eyes to the plight of the peasants. Meanwhile, Kimberly (Alex Goodrich), the son of Mama Swindler (Anne Gunn) the corruptible seamstress of the infamous invisible garments sees a better solution to save their failing business: e-commerce. Debbie Baer’s costumes continue the motif of mixing old and new: Mama wears a brown skirt and bodice while Sam walks around in jeans and a hoodie.  Kevin Depinet’s set is perfectly gaudy and extravagant. Its neon green and bright fuchsia paisley patterns are a whimsical fantasy, and the beautifully conceptualized and crafted set pieces create an engaging aesthetic.

emperor's new clothes4

Directed by Rachel Rockwell, whose recent production of Ragtime (our review ★★★★) was a smash hit at Drury Lane last spring, knows her way around a musical – to put it lightly – and her youthful, feminine energy infuses the entire show. One of her strong suits with family theater is pacing. She keeps the story flowing in a lyrical and fluid way. Actors enter through the aisles and from the wings, and the choreography (also by Rockwell) has the same bouncy, young and fun energy as the rest of the show.

emperor's new clothes3 Alan Schmuckler’s poppy music is up-tempo and vivacious. His music maintains a steady lively pace throughout the show, keeping the production constantly engaging.

Ultimately, the play is a new take on an old fable. Hans Christian Anderson’s classic story has a moral at the end. We learn from it that we must speak our minds and use our common sense. This new version, with its parent/child conflicts, is a more complicated story for a newer, more astute family audience. Simplistic moral punch lines won’t work for today’s children, who have been raised on a diet of television and film that allow them to explore a deeper array of human emotion without necessarily trying to teach them anything. I wouldn’t say that there is no moral to this new imagining of The Emperor’s New Clothes, but I would say that it takes its time getting there, and the moral comes out of an exploration of the character’s relationships. The Emperor’s New Clothes is a fun and exciting new family musical.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

emperor's new clothes2

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