Review: Verse Chorus Verse (Tympanic Theatre)

    
  

The Tragedy of Grunge, Redux

  
  

Dennis Frymire, Jon Penick, and Kevin Crispin - Verse Chorus Verse

  
Tympanic Theatre presents
  
Verse Chorus Verse
  
Written by Randall Colburn
Directed by Kyra Lewandowski
at side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through May 1  |  tickets: $12-$15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Not being a slave to rock ‘n’ roll, I’ve listened, puzzled, to people exclaiming that a certain rock band or music genre saved their lives. I’m equally flummoxed at the notion that any single music artist could be dubbed “the voice of a generation”—there are, after all, so many voices and the most deserving frequently fail to receive widespread attention. Nevertheless, fame places crowns upon a few–that some musicians end in tragedy only serves to superglue that dubious diadem upon the troubled rocker’s brow. Such is the life and music of Kurt Cobain. Tympanic Theatre’s latest production, Verse Chorus Verse, pulls its audience into the milieu of grunge fans, reporters and revivalists marked by Cobain’s death. It’s as if, from the moment he pulled the trigger, time stopped and all hope of going forward was lost.

Actually, Randall Colburn’s interesting new play, under Kyra Lewandowski’s direction at the Side Project Theatre, begins at a far earlier point in the Cobain legend. Fourteen year old Polly (Victoria Gilbert) gets kidnapped, raped and tortured by Gerald Friend (Neal Starbird(left to right) Victoria Gilbert and Neal Starbird - Verse Chorus Verse), who lures her into his car after a punk rock concert–the very same Polly becomes the heroine of Nirvana’s eponymous song on their album “Nevermind”. Flash forward twenty years later, the older Polly now fascinates Garret Leskin (Kevin Crispin), a budding grunge star heralded as the new Cobain, who thoroughly believes that Cobain was murdered. The play’s structure oscillates between the past and present, between that fateful kidnapping and its emotional reverberations far into the future.

For all the dialogue around Cobain and the burden of living up to his legend, the story really belongs to Polly. Gilbert gives a passionate edge to her role’s pathos. Polly is drug-addicted, trapped in the past, and, since becoming enshrined in Cobain’s lyrics, hardly able to see beyond the boundaries of her own legend. The murder mystery that Garret hopes to unravel through her is tangled in half-cooked fictions, inchoate emotional desperation and age-old resentments over who got fame and who got left behind. Dennis Frymore puts in a tough, grilling performance as Mason Dwyer, lead of the Satanic Metal Band, Yeti, who has lost his guitarist Terry (Jon Patrick Penick) to Garret’s up-and-coming band, Samsara.

Lewandoski’s direction also hangs pretty tough—making the most of the black box at Side Project with a spare but versatile set by Dustin Pettegrew. She squeezes every moment for tension and suspense from her cast, shifting between scenes where rockers spar over competing narratives and otherworldly scenes in which Polly survives her kidnapping by Friend, moment by moment, under a starry sky. This doesn’t mean Verse Chorus Verse is perfect. A few fellow audience members confessed to being confused over its alternating shifts between past and present. Plus, the show will obviously carry more meaning for viewers steeped in rock culture. But both the work and production show sophistication, even with its characters’ simplistic pre-occupation with fame. Everyone just wants to be remembered, even Mr. Friend, in a chilling performance by Starbird, tries to be remembered by leaving his marks on Polly’s flesh.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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Verse Chorus Verse continues through April 7th at side project theatre (1439 W. Jarvis), with performances Thursday thru Saturday at 8:00pm, Sunday at 7pm.  Tickets are $15 general admission ($12 for senior/student/industry), and can be purchased online. For more info, go to www.tympanictheatre.org.

 

Photos by Paul E. Martinez.

 

 

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REVIEW: Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune (Hubris)

     
     

An Ordinary Love Story

     
     

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Hubris Productions presents
   
Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune
  
Written by Terrence McNally
Directed by
Jacob Christopher Green
at
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through December 31  |  tickets: $20-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

There’s something oddly sentimental about Terrence McNally’s 1987 anti-romance, Frankie and Johnny in the Clair de Lune. The titular lovers are not typical rom-com fare. For one, they are both pushing forty. They are famously plain in appearance. Neither has a glamorous occupation nor ambition—they work at a greasy spoon, Frankie as a waitress, Johnny as a short-order cook. Both are heavy with emotional baggage. Not sexy, lurid baggage, but run-of-the-mill, pathetic baggage—domestic abuse, divorce, and alcoholism. Yet, the couple discover, repudiate, and battle for a deep, life-or-death level of love. McNally’s thesis is that this sort of passion is not the exclusive privilege of movie star queens and high school quarterbacks. It can even bloom in a cheap apartment in a dingy New York neighborhood. Hubris Productions’ production, directed by Jacob Christopher Green, captures the essence of McNally’s quirky, utterly ordinary love story.

Window.FandJ copySMFrankie and Johnny has one set, two actors, and two acts. It takes place over one long, emotion-fueled night. Johnny (Dennis Frymire) is a lover of Shakespeare, and is convinced that he and Frankie (Patricia Savieo) are meant for each other. She’s not as sure. In fact, she hasn’t ruled out the possibility that Johnny is a lunatic. And she may be right. His overwhelming love of romance is unique, to say the least.

Frymire and Savieo, both Hubris ensemble members, seem completely comfortable with the material, even the extended nudity which starts the show with a bang (literally). The characters come naturally to the duo, whether they’re making love or post-coital meatloaf sandwiches. Most importantly, neither falls into melodrama nor overplays Frankie and Johnny’s quiet desperation.

Savieo is definitely the most fascinating to watch of the two. She lights up the stage. We see that her heart has been stomped on before, so she proceeds with caution and, occasionally, cynicism. Her slow warming-up to Johnny is what drives most of the action, and Savieo handles that arc with grace and strength. The powerful need to keep her heart guarded is evident.

Frymire, on the other hand, can be one-note at times. He gets across Johnny’s enthusiasm, but sometimes at the expense of his charm. He pushes the crazy too hard, an easy crevasse to fall into. He is obviously having fun up there, but it makes him come off as a creep more than he should. The audience starts to wonder why Frankie doesn’t get the police on the line. By the second act, however, he regains some composure and we eat up the delightful finale, which doesn’t feel forced at all.

McNally comes from a school of ‘80s playwrights, an academy that includes John Patrick Shanley and Lanford Wilson, which loves gritty, dynamic love stories. If we want to talk superficial genre specifics we would classify Frankie and Johnny as a comedy. But the play isn’t afraid to dwell on ruinous relationships or drop a bag of f-bombs. Green’s biggest problem is finding the humor. There are some mild chuckles here and there, but the comedy never truly pops in Hubris’ production. The probable cause is that Green’s pacing isn’t as tight as it should be. The actors’ energy falls through the cracks. Frymire, when trying to be weird in ill-fated attempts at laughs, is a good example. Fortunately, McNally’s text is also dramatically complex, so the production stays together.

Frankie and Johnny is about finding magic in a very un-fairy tale world. Green, Frymire, and Savieo all find it, and they present it to us on a platter. The last few moments, which feature Johnny and Frankie watching the sun rise on another day in the city, are pure joy. Out of incredibly everyday people and emotions, Hubris is able to whip up romance.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

REVIEW: Messiah on the Frigidaire (Hubris Productions)

Faith among the desperate

Messiah 3

 
Hubris Productions presents
 
Messiah on the Frigidaire
 
Written by John Culbertson
Directed by Dennis Frymire
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 17th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

The fervid religiosity of the American South suffers so much parody and lampoon it’s a wonder to find any comedy based on it that won’t bog down in cliché and 2-dimensional stereotype. But playwright John Culbertson shows a real feel for his subject. With Messiah on the Frigidaire, he demonstrates enough quick-witted familiarity to zing the zaniness of belief, while compassionately allowing his Messiah 2 characters the room to doubt, despair, and grow. Hubris Productions opens its fourth season at Greenhouse Theater Center with this gentle and astute play. Director Dennis Frymire and cast zealously realize its delicate balance between the hilarity of flamboyant religious showmanship and the loneliness of true dark nights of the soul.

Chief among lost souls is Lou Ann Hightower (Kim Boler)–facing a series of dead ends in her marriage, her blue-collar life, and her church. That might just look like tough times on anyone else. However, Lou Ann is also losing her faith, which for her is like slowly being drained of life’s blood. Luckily, she has a comforting sounding board in her friend and next-door neighbor, Betsy Gridley (Laura Rauh), the happily married ex-slut of Elroy, South Carolina. Lou Ann can confide to Betsy about the estrangement between her and her husband, Dwayne (Aaron Sjoholm), which has occurred under the strain of going nowhere fast. Betsy can still find joy in the streetlights as they come on in the evening, but Lou Ann finds her dreams and Dwayne’s suffocating in the confines of the trailer park.

Yet the Lord works in mysterious and/or obvious ways. In a premature attempt at topiary sculpture, another neighbor’s child has hacked away at one of Lou Ann’s trees. Light from the street lamps projects through its jagged branches, casting a shadow upon the Frigidaire on Lou Ann’s front porch, revealing–the face of Jesus! (Or Willie Nelson, take your choice.) Always thinking, husband Dwayne immediately perceives the monetary value of generating crowds to come view the new icon.

The trouble is, everyone else in town sees the monetary value, too—from the Reverend Hodges (Jeff McVann), who tells Lou Ann she doesn’t “fit in” to his church, to Elroy’s bank president Larry Williamson (Jack Birdwell) who denied Dwayne the loan to open a video store, but set up his own cousin with Dwayne’s idea. Culbertson is quite smart in the the numorous ways he highlights Elroy’s class dynamics. But he is also very conscious about the way it wreaks havoc with Lou Ann’s delicate conscience. Lou Ann may be more Christian than the church she’s been thrown out of or even the believers that show up on her property, but that doesn’t necessarily make her any happier.

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Frymire maintains the possibility of hope by snuggly weaving the relationships between Lou Ann and Betsy, and Lou Ann and Dwayne. Boler’s performance quietly, profoundly reaches to the solitary longing in Lou Ann’s soul but it also exposes Lou Ann’s simple, open acceptance of other people in their beliefs, no matter how wacky. Sjoholm’s Dwayne is a wily but frustrated good guy—chomping at the bit to make good on his dreams; only needing someone, especially Lou Ann, to believe in him. As Betsy, Rauh never goes overboard with the fun and friendly sluttiness—just enough to make her casual and comfortable in her own skin, never enough to overwhelm the friendship between Betsy and Lou Ann.

Even the “bad guys” get a bit of sympathy in their interpretation. Reverend Hodges may be the douchiest of douche bag preachers, but McVann’s performance also gives the impression that he is almost always on the point of obsequiously apologizing to someone. Birdwell portrays Larry Williamson with light, Southern college boy charm, masking the teeth he has underneath just long enough before he needs them.

This is one of those productions where the set should really live up to the quality of the storytelling. John Whittington makes the most of the cramped studio space available, but it still shows a flat, 2-dimensional quality. That might be fine if these were comic book characters—but they are not and the acting is not. Humane portrayals of flawed, human characters deserve humane, if not royal surroundings.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

REVIEW: The (edward) Hopper Project (WNEP Theatre)

Though a brilliant concept, this project lacks dramatic arc

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WNEP Theater presents:

The (edward) Hopper Project

conceived by Jen Ellison
directed by Don Hall
thru February 21st at The Storefront Theatre 

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

There’s no doubt but that there are narrative riches embedded in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Gaze at them even momentarily and the stories take shape, treasures of the mind’s eye that form with the organic spontaneity only the most gifted artists can inspire. Hopper seems like a natural for translation from canvas to the stage; capture the silent depths within the deceptively simple angles and colors of “Early Sunday Morning,” “Room in New York,” “Office at Night” or “Nighthawks,” and you’ve got a piece of wonderful theater.

WNEP_TheHopperProject_01 With The (edward) Hopper Project, WNEP Theater tries to do just that with a production conceived by Jen Ellison as a writing exercise several years ago. The collaborative piece directed by Don Hall follows in the footsteps of similar endeavors – John Musto ’s 2007 opera, “Later the Same Evening,” used five Hopper paintings as his foundation. Donna McRae ’s 2005 film “The Usherette” spun a story from Hopper’s “New York Movie.”

WNEP puts a jazz score behind the paintings-brought-to-life, which reach a visual peak in the money shot that ends the piece by replicating one of Hopper’s most iconic images. That closer sends the audience out on a high note. Would that the roughly two hours leading up to it were as compelling.

The Hopper Project was written by Mary Jo Bolduc, Jen Ellison, Bob Fisher, Tom Flanigan, Don Hall, Merrie Greenfield, Joe Janes, Cholley Kuhaneck, and Rebecca Langguth; perhaps therein lies the core trouble. Playwriting by committee rarely results in a well-written play and for all its visual prowess, The Hopper Project is simply not well written. At the crux of the difficulty? A lack in both character development and connective tissue or dramatic arc among the characters. Watching the piece is akin to flicking through two hours of Network television, never stopping on the same channel for more than a few minutes. People and conversational fragments flit by in fits and starts, rattling about the surface without root or depth – and therefore without substance.

Where The Hopper Project differs from the mostly black hole of TV in its brilliant concept. But for all the gorgeous, provocative potential, that concept is done in by execution that’s far more meh than marvelous.

You’ll get no argument here that true wonders can come of making an audience wrestle with tantalizing loose ends and challenging ambiguity. Few things annoy us more than theater of the stupid – shows that condescend to hand-feed the audience every last detail while telegraphing precisely what the one should be feeling at any given moment. But The Hopper Project goes too far in the other direction. The stories play like unfinished two-dimensional sketches rather than textured, fully realized paintings. Context – both specific and universal – is minimal, and the result is something scattered and superficial rather than a united, meaningful whole.

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Overheard conversations one expects to take on deeper resonance never do, words and actions unfold more in vacuums than in fully realized world. And some things just don’t make any sense at all. As a movie theater audience slouches over popcorn (“New York Movie”), an usherette delivers a monologue to – the projector? Her sister? Herself? Why does the slapsticky, mugging business man (“Office at Night”) threaten to kill himself every day? What in the world is the deal with the man whose face burned off and why does he surface, face swathed in bandages, only during intermission? As a Phillip Marlowe wannabe rambles on about a pair of green shoes and (hello noir cliché) a jilted horn player, as a husband and wife bicker abrasively over the connotations of the word “clever,” as a pair of brunettes converse in fraught tones about a family drama, it becomes harder and harder to engage. It is indeed clever that the scenes copy paintings by Edward Hopper in a secular sort of Living Nativity pageant. But minus all-important context and characters, that cleverness takes on the feel of a gimmick.

Also troubling are the problematic sightlines presented by Heath Hays’ wide, shallow set. The construction is terrific in its boxy, two-story evocation of Hopper’s lines and shades. But if the view is obstructed, the artistry is wasted. From dead center in one of the best seats in the house, I couldn’t see any of the scenes that played on the far sides of the thing.

All that said, there are some winning performances in The Hopper Project. Dennis Frymire creates a largely silent cop whose workaday, shoe-leather weariness hasn’t extinguished an optimistic, romantic heart. Amanda Rountree is radiantly endearing as flirt whose winning smile is laced with the eminently relatable motivation of big city loneliness. If only they had more to work with.

Rating: ★★

 

“The (edward) Hopper Project” continues through Feb. 21 at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St. Tickets are $20, $15 students and seniors. For more information, go to www.dcatheater.org

The (edward) Hopper Project features Scott T. Barsotti, Mary Jo Bolduc, Regan Davis, Lauren Fisher, Dennis Frymire, Kevin Gladish, Lori Goss, Merrie Greenfield, Marsha Harman, Joe Janes, Andrew Jordan, Ian Knox. Patrick Kelly, Vinnie Lacey, Erin Orr, Amanda Rountree and Jacob A. Ware.

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