REVIEW: Doo-Lister’s Blues (National Pastime Theater)

Remembering the Blues

 

 Doo-Listers Blues - National Pastime Theater 2

   
National Pastime Theater 
   
Doo-Lister’s Blues
   
Written by Terry Abrahamson
Directed by
Victory Cole 
at
National Pastime, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
through November 28  |  tickets: $30  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I remember the west side in the 1960’s up close and personal. My grandparents lived down the street from WVON and just south of Madison when it went up in flames. Doo Lister’s Blues is a recreation of that time from one family’s point of view. Playwright Terry Abrahamson has attempted to put that time in a capsule with the burgeoning new Black music scene as the dramatic focus.

Doo-Listers Blues - National Pastime Theater 3 Doo is a barber on the West Side who is trying to keep things together. He and his wife want to adopt a baby. They present the perfect couple on paper. He is a business owner and she is a schoolteacher. Warren Levon plays the part of Doo with an understated grace and sweet humor. Lucy Sandy plays his wife Maria with a perfect counterpoint of common sense to Doo’s dreamer style. At the opening of Act I the riots are already in progress and Doo has remained in his shop to protect it while sending his wife to the relative safety of Maywood. Life is just okay and his shop is safe until a force of nature named Rebecca walks into his shop offering to set up a record business as a side gig. Victoria Abram-Copenhaver is perfect in the role of Rebecca, projecting the idealism and fearlessness that I recall about some of the White activists that appeared in the neighborhood when I was a kid. Unbeknownst to Doo, Rebecca is having an affair with his younger brother Buck. Buck is a 4F draft dodger with the FBI on his tail.

Doo wants to be a songwriter but his songs are treacle about chocolate love and candy kisses. Actually, the songs are a pretty funny motif to the first act. Mr. Levon is a portly man reminiscent of Barry White in his romanticism and looks. Rebecca shows no interest in his songs and yet gives him encouragement to change the scope of his music.

Terry Francois plays the role of Buck Lister. I have seen Mr. Francois in MPAACT Theatre productions, and he brings the same excellent crafting to the role of Buck Lister. Buck is doomed on all fronts. He is hiding in a garage in Uptown where he works as a valet. Add to the mix his relationship with a White girl. That is no big deal now but it was called miscegenation back then and was outright illegal or cause for violence. Mr. Francois plays the role with a light humor and grace that makes him even more horrible end even sadder. Agent Jewel Moton, played by Damien Crim, is in hot pursuit of Buck Lister. He is the rare Black agent and sent in to talk sense to the family ‘Negro to Negro’. Mr. Crim handles the role quite well. It is a hot potato of political and social implications. Agent Moton has advanced in his career, but he has become what we used to call ‘The Man’ and is not to be trusted. Mr. Crim displays, with marvelous subtlety, the emotions of a man conflicted and yet dedicated to his job at the same time.

It’s Act II where the play picks up steam and really delves into the music and Cultural Revolution that was the result of the violence. After the murder of Buck, Doo adopts a Black Revolutionary stance. He wears a dashiki and skullcap and the tone of his music changes. Kenneth Johnson plays the role of sidekick Catfish and he gives Doo a gentle ribbing while still being supportive. Mr. Johnson does well in the underwritten role. I wish that his character had been fleshed out more. Part of the play’s conflict resides in the angry turn that Doo’s music has taken.  I clearly remember the music of a group called ‘The Last Poets,’ and his music gives homage to them. My next-door neighbor would put her speakers in the window and blast the lyrics to the neighborhood. The music encouraged an uprising as well as pride in one’s roots before ‘Roots’. There was the exhortation to fight the cops, and Stokely Carmichael screaming ‘burn baby burn’ supported it. The production does a fine job of portraying those times and the consequences of the so-called revolution.

Doo’s music cannot be played on the radio because it could incite more riots. His wife loses her job for consorting with her own husband. One disc jockey agrees to play the music and Agent Moton gets to him. Rebecca goes on the run with the master tapes and Doo Lister ends up in jail for daring to practice the Constitutional right to free speech.

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The National Pastime Theater Ensemble does a fine job reproducing the sights and sounds of the times. The barber/record shop is spot on with the Black Power fist in the window. Upon closer inspection there is the classic Huey Newton poster that displays the legendary Black Panther with a spear and a rifle. (I still have his albums.) Even the sounds of the scratchy AM radio sounded wonderful to me.

The company needs to work out some lighting cues. Before we were let in we were told of sound cue problems. That was not the case but the glaring house lights came up each time a scene changed. Another glitch was the insertion of the rapper between scenes along with the multimedia display. I presume that it was supposed to show the roots of rap going back to ‘The Last Poets’ but it felt ham-fisted and sounded even worse. Rapper Al Mayweathers held the microphone too close, obscuring any clarity of his words. It may have been to make the play more relevant to younger audiences but it served more to disjoint the rhythm of the action. History is cyclical; perhaps today’s rappers have a similar frame of reference, but it does not blend well with the story or the action.

Director Victor Cole makes good use of the supporting cast.. The characters appear in expressionistic light as if frozen in time. It’s a good way to present the police and corporate entities that served to suppress freedom of speech and expression in music. That time in history has so many layers that one two-hour play could not cover it without skimming over important facts. Abrahamson has selected wisely to focus on one family while perhaps inciting people’s curiosity to look up some of the other facts about Chicago during this time.

For the most part, Doo Lister’s Blues provides a thoughtful and enjoyable couple of hours with Chicago’s history. My companion and I were abuzz with memories about that time, which is definitely a nice side effect.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Doo Lister’s Blues runs Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays through November 28th. The National Pastime Theater is located at 4139 N. Broadway in Chicago. For more details call 773-327-7077 or log on to www.bluesonbroadway.com

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REVIEW: The Emperor’s New Clothes (National Pastime)

Naked, Not Ready

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National Pastime Theater presents
  
The Emperor’s New Clothes
   
Written by Keely Haddad-Null
Directed by Carolyne Anderson
at
National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
through July 31st  | 
tickets: $20   |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

National Pastime Theater opened its “Naked July Festival” with a clever re-imagining of Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes by Keely Haddad-Null. In its dystopian future, Los Angeles has annexed surrounding states during the breakup of America. However, the City of Angels is about to go broke, with absolutely zip, zilch,  nada to pay its striking, angry city workers. Its Mayor, referred to more commonly as the Emperor (Don Claudin), orders his emperors new clothes 2public relations team to distract the public from his gross mismanagement. Said team breaks into the mansion of famous, reclusive film director Korminsky (Meg Elliot) to be advised of their next course of action to create the perfect media-based distraction. Korminsky tells them their only recourse is to rely upon The Tailor, who can construct designer clothing that only the enlightened can see.

Haddad-Null’s play lampoons, in a fun and sassy way, our truly American, Hollywood-fueled image obsession, as well as our culture’s corporate strategies for manufacturing consent. Unfortunately, upon opening, National Pastime’s production showed all the telltale signs of under-rehearsal. Sound design miscues permeated the evening. While such things can be cleaned up in the course of the run, the cast performances betrayed a distinct want of pace and comic timing, especially in the opening scene.

Director Carolyne Anderson simply must face the acoustic difficulties of the space. During the whole first scene, blocked on the raised back stage, the actors’ voices were dampened and flattened by the poor acoustics of the room. Korminsky’s quasi Howard-Hughes-on-Jesus look is quite inspired but the oversized beard also muffles Elliots’ delivery of this whacked-out character’s essential lines. Finally, the Emperor’s public relations team, made up of Maggie (Mary Roberts), Marco (David Bettino), and Maylan (Taylor Entwistle), needs to establish their comic cohesion, since they are meant to be the Three Musketeers of LA media manipulation. Poor choices in direction, which create only static interaction between them and Korminsky, deadened this scene’s comic potential.

 

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Action in the thrust part of the stage faired far better, where the actors delivered with greater clarity and formed a more intimate connection with the audience. Haddad-Null’s script may need a little editing, but for the most part this production needs a better way of actualizing the script. Maggie, Marco, and Maylan seem to do better when they are on the move, entering scenes from different directions, yakking constantly on their cell phones than they do actually talking directly to themselves or other characters. Don Claudin’s performance as the Emperor/Mayor shines above the rest since he does self-important asshole right and his projection from the back of the stage, while other actors’ lines get lost, is a model of proper technique.

Elliot also pours on a magical presence as The Tailor once downstage. Unfortunately, even her powers aren’t enough to transcend that damn back stage. Her scenes with the Empress (Miona Harris) were, fortunately, downstage so that the audience could catch the tenderness and amusement of their growing connection.

Time to head back to the drawing board to rethink direction and sharpen up this show’s comic timing as well. No comedy or satire should be lost upon the stage.

   
   
Rating: ★½
   
   

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REVIEW: Street Scene (National Pastime Theater)

How not to revive a play

 

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National Pastime Theater presents
 
Street Scene
 
Written by Elmer Rice
Directed by Laurence Bryan and Keely Haddad-Null
At
National Pastime Theater, 4139 N. Broadway (map)
thru April 25th (more info)

reviewed by Oliver Sava

Elmer Rice‘s 1929 Pulitzer Prize winning Street Scene has over fifty characters and a heavy handed script that critiques an urban social structure that doesn’t exist anymore. Why did storefront theater National Pastime revive this show? Dated scripts have a certain appeal in revealing how contemporary society has changed or remained stagnant, and evolved acting techniques can often bring new life to a dusty play. Unfortunately, those only apply if the production is good, and National Pastime’s is not. 

Directors Laurence Bryan and Keely Haddad-Null fail to transform their assortment of actors into a cohesive ensemble, and much of this can be attributed to a lack of definition concerning the world of the play. Rice’s realist dialogue and characters clash with out-of-tune musical interludes and out of sync movement sequences, drawing attention away from the script and onto the weak choices of the creative team. Why have actors play instruments with a track if they can’t stay on tempo? Or have three actors engaging in expressive hand choreography in a corner of the stage in the midst of legitimate dramatic conflict? Some of the decisions are truly baffling, especially an unintentionally hilarious sound cue of a woman giving birth that falls somewhere between an infant throwing a tantrum and Linda Blair being exorcised. These all could be excused if the acting were above par, yet somewhere in the directors’ conceptualization of the script they forgot about the 23 performers on stage.

The plot of Street Scene concerns the hardships endured by the residents of a tenement in New York City, a group of people ranging from fresh immigrants to those having lived in the city their entire lives. The biggest challenge for the actors is the dialects, and their accuracy varies greatly, with most falling on the low end. The New York accents aren’t consistent, creating confusion about where exactly this stoop is located, and there are times when mother-daughter duo Rose (Melinda Ryba) and Mrs. Maurrant (Rebekka James) drop the dialect completely, making it even more distracting when it mysteriously reappears. The immigrant characters don’t fair any better. Musician Lippo (Michael Solomon) sounds more like Cheech Marin than an Italian, and his wife Mrs. Fiorentino (Kiley Moore) struggles to sound anything but American. Mrs. Olsen’s (Alexandra Shepherd) accent sounds like she can be anywhere from Ireland to eastern Europe.

The dialects are such an obstacle that it is difficult to connect with what the characters are actually saying, and plot points get lost in the muddled language along with any emotional resonance. The actors with the best vocals are the most intriquing, particularly Kaplan (Fred A. Wellisch) and his daughter Shirly (Shannon Hollander), who not only have flawless dialects, but also a clearly defined relationship. Their two windows of the tenement’s nine feature the most dynamic storytelling of the entire show, and watching the weary Shirly keep her rambunctious father in check provides actual entertainment value. Even apart these two actors shine, with Wellisch filling the “elderly revolutionary” role (see Awake and Sing’s Jacob) without becoming too tedious, and Hollander creating the show’s most genuine emotional moment, a melancholy goodbye with the tragic Rose.

Certain members of the supporting cast also provide nice but fleeting moments, like the ultra-prejudiced black neighbor Mrs. Jones (Sandra Watson) who is completely unaware of her son Vincent’s (Geoffrey Davis-El) tendency to rape, although the actual assault is some of the worst fight choreography I’ve ever seen. Prostitute Mae’s (Kelsey Hopper) squeaky sensuality brightens her scenes and impoverished mother Hildebrand (Rachel Griesinger) brings some tension to the piece with her chilly demeanor. Otherwise, the acting is stiff and disconnected across the board. Many actors look uncomfortable on stage, particularly when the goofy choreography begins, and line delivery becomes so monotone and dull as the play stretches into hours that it is a chore to watch.

A second intermission is the final nail in the show’s coffin, killing any momentum the lagging production had gathered. Expecting an audience member to wait another ten minutes for the end of a mediocre production is disrespectful, especially when the third act is twenty minutes long.

 
Rating: ★½
 

Street Scene previews March 19 & 20 and opens on March 26 at 8pm. The performances run Thursdays, Fridays Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm to April 25. Tickets are $25. Date night stimulus Thursdays two for one.

        

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