Review: Arnie the Doughnut (Lifeline Theatre)

  
  

A sweet indulgence of children’s theater

  
  

Mr. Bing (Anthony Kayer, center) and Arnie the doughnut (Brandon Paul Eells, right) plead with Mrs. Plute (Julia Merchant, left) to let Arnie stay at the Cozy Confines Condo Community; in Lifeline Theatre’s production of “Arnie the Doughnut,” adapted by Frances Limoncelli, music by George Howe, and directed by Elise Kauzlaric, based on the popular children’s book by Laurie Keller;  Photo by Suzanne Plunkett.

     
Lifeline Theatre presents
 
Arnie the Doughnut
 
Adapted by Frances Limoncelli
Based on book by Laurie Keller
Music/Lyrics by George Howe
Directed by Elise Kauzlaric
at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $12  | 
more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

The First Lady would maybe not approve of this delightful children’s musical due to the fact that the play’s hero is a talking fried fatty confectionary void of nutritional value. Nevertheless, Frances Limoncelli’s adaptation of Laurie Keller’s acclaimed children’s book, “Arnie the Doughnut is chock full of moral and whimsical value. Limoncelli’s adaptation is further enhanced by George Howe’s catchy doo-woppy music and lyrics complimented with doughnut hole background singers.

Mr. Bing (Anthony Kayer, right) and Arnie the doughnut (Brandon Paul Eells, left) negotiate a new relationship between man and doughnut; in Lifeline Theatre’s production of “Arnie the Doughnut,” adapted by Frances Limoncelli, music by George Howe, and directed by Elise Kauzlaric, based on the popular children’s book by Laurie Keller Photo by Suzanne Plunkett. The story begins on Arnie’s (Brandon Paul Eells) birthday. He was born earlier that morning in the fryer at the Downtown Bakery. Arnie is a chocolate frosted doughnut, with somewhere between one hundred and one million sprinkles. Proving to be quite philosophical for his young age, he wonders, “What’s my purpose?” He has a strong desire to be the “best doughnut he can be” doing whatever it is doughnuts were made for. Oh, poor naive Arnie doesn’t realize his fate.

He meets new friends vying to be chosen in the doughnut display case, Jelly (Julia Merchant), Powdered (u/s Jasmine Ryan charmingly played at the performance I attended; regularly portrayed by Audrey Flegal) and French Cruller (Abby E. Sammons). They break into the Howe’s most infectious number, “Sunshiny Goodness.”

Arnie is chosen from the display case by the routine obsessed Mr. Bing (Anthony Kayer). Mr. Bing has come to the bakery for his normal plain donuts, but in a fluke, they’ve run out. You know Mr. Bing: he’s the bachelor who pays every bill ten days early, is in bed by 9PM on weekends and still has all of his vacation days left at the end of the fiscal year. He finally takes a risk on a chocolate covered sprinkled doughnut. During the song “A Bumpy Ride”, Arnie rides in a giant paper bag alongside Mr. Bing. Scenic designer, Melania Lancy creates a fun doughnut car that looks more like a deep fried Segway. Arnie learns the hard reality of his true purpose in life when Bing takes his first bite. It’s all a fun adventure from there, trying to figure out what role Arnie can fill in Bing’s life. Julia Merchant is deliciously evil as Mr. Bing’s rule-loving condo president, Ms. Plute.

Lifeline excels in children’s theater, because they clearly treat it no differently than their main stage. The talent takes this play to the next level. Eells is expressive and genuine, not to mention a wonderful comedic actor in every sense. His vocal work is full of life and character. The interplay between him and Kayer bring some subtle comedic laughs for adults. The design is whimsically thrilling. Mean Mrs. Plute (Julia Merchant, left) informs Mr. Bing (Anthony Kayer, right) that the bylaws of their condo community demand that Arnie the doughnut must go by the end of the day; in Lifeline Theatre’s production of “Arnie the Doughnut,” adapted by Frances Limoncelli, music by George Howe, and directed by Elise Kauzlaric, based on the popular children’s book by Laurie Keller. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett. The colors in Lancy’s set are just as vibrant as Keller’s book. Also, Kat Doebler’s costumes allow for wonderfully fanciful transformations of characters. Joe Court’s sound design is the sprinkles on top, particularly one great gag implementing the Psycho sound effect.

In the end, the message of variance in life and companionship may lie a little over the head of the youngest of audiences. Also, do be warned that this play encourages breaking rules (which I found refreshing). I would probably recommend this play for slightly older children, or kids who love the “Arnie” book. A little like a doughnut, the story is light on sustenance and heavy on delight. It seems as though the adults in the audience were laughing constantly, while the children were slightly in awe.

What young audiences will receive, regardless of age, is a wonderful experience in the theatre. The intimacy of a production such as this, compared to a large commercial “Disney-fied” children’s show, provides for a much more magical and personal experience for kids. Just be prepared to shell out for Howe’s irresistible soundtrack on CD, resulting in sudden outbursts expressing the desire to be “More Than Just Delicious.”

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Arnie the doughnut (Brandon Paul Eells, right) meets his new doughnut-hole friends at the Downtown Bakery; in Lifeline Theatre’s production of “Arnie the Doughnut,” adapted by Frances Limoncelli, music by George Howe, and directed by Elise Kauzlaric, based on the popular children’s book by Laurie Keller. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett.

Arnie the Doughnut continues at Lifeline Theatre through May 15th, with performances Saturdays at 1PM and Sundays at 11AM and 1PM. There are no performances Easter Sunday, April 24; or Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 8. Running time is 55 min. with no intermission. Ticket prices are $12 and may be purchased at the Lifeline Theatre Box Office, 773.761.4477, or by visiting www.lifelinetheatre.com.

All photos by Suzanne Plunkett

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Review: The 13th of Paris (LiveWire Chicago Theater)

     
     

Romantic dramedy is crippled by weak script

     
     

Jacques (Robert McLean) woes Chloe (Madeline Long) as Vincent (Joel Ewing) observes in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of Paris

  
LiveWire Chicago Theater presents
   
The 13th of Paris
  
Written by Mat Smart
Directed by Steve Wilson
at Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

The script is the foundation of a play. No matter how talented an ensemble may be, if the foundation is weak, the production crumbles. Mat Smart’s script for The 13th of Paris lacks many of the fundamental characteristics for strong theater – an emotionally rich story, believable characters, logic – and Livewire’s production buckles without the support. The plot focus on Chicagoan Vincent’s (Joel Ewing) struggles with his long-term girlfriend Annie (Laura Bess Ewing), who he has abandoned to go to Paris and find himself in the apartment owned by his dead grandparents. As the present-day events unfold, the story of Vincent’s grandfather Jacques’ (Robert McLean) courtship of Vincent’s grandmother Chloe (Madeline Long) in a French café is simultaneously unfolding. Smart’s script attempts to make some grand comparisons between contemporary courtship and classic romance (the type that takes place in a cozy café where old men charm young girls with flowery platitudes), but ultimately gets buried in clichés and an inconsequential plot.

The play begins with a pants-less Vincent discussing the merits of love with the spirit of his grandfather, and the jokes about his state of pants-less-ness carry on considerably past the point of tolerability. The script contains a couple of these gags that might work in a show that is more focused on heightened comedy, but Smart is unsure of what tone he wants for his story. Chunks of comedy are followed by chunks of drama, rather than having both elements seamlessly combine throughout, and the result is disjointed. The play’s humor vacillates between slapstick to caricature, and once Annie’s drunk friend Jessica (Krista Krauss) and British husband William (Max Lesser) enter, reality goes out the window like the love letters Jacques throws off his balcony. The hyper-sexual pair serves as another contrast to the Jacques/Chloe story, but both characters are written as such stereotypes that it’s difficult to connect to either on a personal level.

Vincent (Joel Ewing) attempts to write from the heart as Jacques (Robert McLean) and Chloe (Madeline Long) share a dance in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of ParisA major problem is that Vincent and Annie’s relationship lacks any real emotional depth, largely due to the one-sided nature of the script. There’s plenty of people talking about Annie, but by the time she shows up to tell her end of the story, the play has been meandering for well over an hour. Vincent’s concerns that their relationship is becoming boring and his girlfriend too accommodating don’t seem to necessitate the international trek, and when Annie bankrupts herself to take the same trip (in an incredibly fast plane), they come to an understanding that could have just as easily happened in their living room in Chicago. Similarly, William’s marital conflict with Jessica, namely that she wants sex too often, is a fairly shallow one, especially considering the ease with which William succumbs to his wife carnal demands.

Despite the weaknesses of the script, the cast is trying their hardest to bring a sense of reality to the play, but they can only go so far. Technically, the French dialects from McLean and Long could be more polished, but for the most part the actors provide admirable performances of badly written characters. The play’s strongest moment happens toward the end, as the final moments of Jacques and Chloe’s romance unravel, but it’s not enough to make up for the 90 minutes that preceded it. The play ends with a song from French rockers Phoenix (“Rome” for a play about Paris), and it feels like a cheap attempt to use inspirational music to bring emotion to a lacking script.

  
  
Rating: ★★
   
  

Jacques (Robert McLean) supports Vincent (Joel Ewing) along his journey to find love in Mat Smart's charming and theatrical play, The 13th of Paris

The 13th of Paris continues at the Greenhouse Theater Center  through April 17th, with performances Thursday-Saturday 8pm, Sundays 3pm.  Tickets are $20, and can be purchased online or by calling the box-office at 773-404-7336.  More info available at www.livewirechicago.com.

  
  

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REVIEW: Aftermath (Signal Ensemble Theatre)

  
  

The battle for the soul of Rock ‘n’ Roll

  
  

(left to right) George (Andrew Yearick) introduces Brian (Aaron Snook) to the sitar, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath,” written and directed by co-artistic director Ronan Marra.  Photo by Johnny Knight.

  
Signal Ensemble Theatre presents
  
Aftermath
  
Written/Directed by Ronan Marra
at
Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice (map)
through Jan 23  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Coming late to the Aftermath party, I wanted to see how well the production has held up since switching to Signal Ensemble’s own theater space. Extremely well, it would seem, from the sold-out crowds. Chicagoans are undeniably enjoying playwright and director Ronan Marra’s musical bio and tribute to Brian Jones, the eclectic 60s rock genius and tragic founder of The Rolling Stones.

Mick (Nick Vidal) sings while Brian (Aaron Snook) plays the sitar, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath,” written and directed by co-artistic director Ronan Marra. Photo by Johnny KnightClearly, critical kibitzing may mean nothing, now that Signal’s production has rolled along just fine, both reawakening Boomer nostalgia and exposing a younger generation to the Stones with a laudable facsimile of the original band’s performances. In fact, Marra’s requirement for musical proficiency in his cast stands at the throbbing heart of Signal’s production. Much as Aaron Snook charismatically captivates the audience, intrepidly holding attention under a fabulous mop top of blonde hair, he also pulls his weight hinting at Brian’s natural facility with multiple instruments by playing dulcimer, sitar and electric guitar. The music is the thing. The band’s excellence is the show’s mainstay. Once Mark J. Hurni’s dramatic lighting comes up on “Paint it, Black,” you know that this train is stopping for no one.

Except for one small, perceivable flaw—as Mick Jagger, Nick Vidal’s voice achieves a suitably approximate timbre but is almost drowned out by the force of the band. At least at my Sunday matinee viewing, seated in the front row, most song lyrics were indiscernible. Only during “Lady Jane” does Vidal hold his own, volume-wise. That’s too bad, especially since every other aspect of Vidal’s portrayal is electrifying. He has captured Mick’s strut, the liquid energy that made Jagger a consummate showman and indisputable sex idol. When acting, Vidal has Jagger’s snarky insouciance down pat, but behind the mic his voice pales. Joseph Stearns also doesn’t make for a thoroughly realistic Keith Richards—but the pressure isn’t on him as it is Vidal. He’s not the front man.

Dramatically, Marra’s writing also is lacking. His jukebox musical has an excellent sense of structure, with each number placed to move the action and characters forward; the boilerplate dialogue and predictable storytelling, however, may as well have come from MTV’s “Behind the Music.” Marra wants a balanced reflection on Brian Jones’ life and forgotten contributions to the Rolling Stones’ aesthetic. Yet, he simply hasn’t taken risks to plumb the depths of his troubled but fascinating rock idol. Instead, the audience is lead through a pageant of Brian’s struggles—his battles with Mick for artistic leadership of the Stones, his musical giftedness, his affair with model Anita Pallenberg (Simone Roos) and his downward spiral into paranoia and drug dependency.

     
(left to right) Brian (Aaron Snook) and Mick (Nick Vidal) perform a song, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath”. Photo by Johnny Knight (left to right) Bill (Nathan Drackett) and Charlie (Bries Vannon) laugh at the rest of the band during an interview, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath”.

In Snook, the show has an actor whose performance gives more ballast to Marra’s two-dimensional writing, but even he cannot redeem the material from its well-worn clichés. Once Brian suspects Anita in an affair with Keith, he and Roos together carry out especially visceral performances, but most of the rest of the action is a predictable dance of rock star dissolution that skirts the edges of both Jones’ genius and his darker side. We leave knowing no more about what made Brian Jones tick than before.

Plus, for hardcore rock aficionados, Marra’s work is just as much an act of forgetting as it is a loving tribute to the fallen Rolling Stone. Significant figures in Brian Jones’ life get tossed wholesale from Aftermath’s storyline. Instrumental to Jones’ ouster from the band was the arrival of Andrew Loog Oldham, who eventually took over most of Jones’ managerial duties and pushed for Jagger/Richards’ songwriting in the name of sustained financial success. Without Oldham’s presence or mention in the drama, Mick Jagger comes across as the principal villain behind Brian getting sacked from the group.

Brian (Aaron Snook) tells his story to the audience, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath” What’s more, significant musical creations get lost in Marra’s truncated retelling. At one point Marra has Brian Jones bring up “Their Satanic Majesties Request”, only to toss it off as just a forgettable, sub-par Stones’ album. Actually, the album was the Stones’ brief venture into psychedelic rock, which reached its apex in 1967. This was the direction in which Jones, with all his world music influences, was going. But its production, broken up by court appearances and random showings by band members and their friends, proved to be a monster to complete. Once produced, it looked like a cheap knock off compared to the Beatles’ wildly successful “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which had beaten the Stones to release by six months.

“Their Satanic Majesties Request” was Jones’ last hoorah in terms of his musical influence on the band. According to Richie Unterberger of Allmusic, the album “. . . incorporated African rhythms, Mellotrons, and full orchestration. Never before or since did the Stones take so many chances in the studio. In 1968, the Stones would go back to the basics, and never wander down these paths again . . .” A 1998 bootleg box set of the outtakes of the Satanic sessions reveals Jones in fruitful collaboration with Keith Richards and session pianist Nicky Hopkins, creating the album’s eerie soundscapes. But psychedelic rock was soon to fade as quickly as it had blossomed and Brian was going with it.

Obviously not everything about the Jones’ life can be mentioned, but certainly these milestones deserve more than a glossing. In the end, however, Aftermath remains an enjoyable evening of nostalgic entertainment.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
    
   

Brian (Aaron Snook, left) talks to a reporter (Vincent Lonergan, center) while Mick (Nick Vidal, right) listens, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of the drama with music “Aftermath".

   
  

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REVIEW: Wuthering Heights (Lifeline Theatre)

 

Gothic gone ghostly

 

 Nelly (Cameron Feagin, right) comforts Cathy (Lindsay Leopold, left), who suffers from tortured visions; in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Wuthering Heights,” adapted by Christina Calvit, directed by Elise Kauzlaric, based on the classic novel by Emily Brontë

   
Lifeline Theatre presents
   
Wuthering Heights
   
Adapted by Christina Calvit
From the novel by Emily Brontë
Directed by Elise Kauzlaric
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
Through October 31   |  
tickets: $20–35  |   more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

In a sense, Emily Brontë’s classic romance is about an anguished love that endures beyond the grave. Despite many gothic elements, it is not, however, a ghost story.

Yet in Lifeline Theatre’s disappointing version of Wuthering Heights, Lindsay Leopold as Cathy Earnshaw, spends way too much time creeping about the stage in a white gown, grasping hands out claw-like, while the rest of the company stands around dismally making "woo-woo" sounds in the background. Where’s the Halloween candy?

Heathcliff (Gregory Isaac, right foreground) is haunted by the memory of his lost love Cathy (Lindsay Leopold, left background); in Lifeline Theatre’s world premiere production of “Wuthering Heights,” adapted by Christina Calvit, directed by Elise Kauzlaric, based on the classic novel by Emily Brontë Adaptor Christina Calvit dumps the eminently dispensable Mr. Lockwood, who frames the original story, and leaves all of the narration in the hands of Nelly Dean (the capable Cameron Feagin), who does most of it in the novel, anyway. But Lockwood’s nightmare about Cathy at the start of the book makes it clear that the dead Cathy’s influence is psychological, not supernatural, paving the way for the dying Heathcliff’s visions of her. Here we have a very solid Cathy pounding at the window to get in, over and over again.

Calvit also excises the pious Joseph, removing the whole theme of religious intolerance and hypocrisy that’s in the novel. Even at that, the production runs nearly 2½ hours.

We’re left with the everlasting triangle of the brooding and increasingly dangerous Heathcliff (darkly handsome Gregory Isaac), the highly strung, self-centered Cathy and the prissy Edgar Linton (nicely played by Robert Kauzlaric), and the second-generation repetition of Cathy’s daughter (a straightforward performance by Lucy Carapetyan), Healthcliff’s sickly and selfish son (Nick Vidal) and the degraded Hareton Earnshaw (Christopher Chmelik), here turned into a kind of cringing Gollum.

The deteriorating Hindley Earnshaw (John Henry Roberts), Cathy’s mean and profligate brother, and Healthcliff’s unfortunate wife (Sarah Goeden) get short shrift. The comparison between Earnshaw’s decline at the death of his beloved wife and Heathcliff’s reaction to Cathy’s marriage and subsequent demise is all but buried.

For all their scenes together, we never really see the sensual attraction that so haunts Heathcliff that he spends his life plotting revenge over his lost love, or Cathy to say that Heathcliff is her self. (Which, of course, makes it OK for her to marry another guy.)

WutheringHeights2Calvit juxtaposes the two generations fairly well, but she introduces each character in such a way that audiences are never left in any suspense about what’s going to happen and who’s going wind up with whom. So she tells us that Cathy marries Linton, not Heathcliff, and that her daughter ends up with Hareton well before the scenes that show us. Perhaps Calvit assumed that no one would go to see this play who wasn’t familiar with the novel. She might be right.

Certainly, no one who isn’t already a fan of the Brontë will become one as a result of this very screechy play, in which the characters are constantly yelling at one another. (To be fair, some of that is straight out of Emily Brontë melodrama — but it’s not comfortable to hear.)

Stylized. dancelike sequences add nothing to our understanding of the story and only take up time and slow the action. So much of the script and Elise Kauzlaric direction get in the way, that it’s hard to tell whether the cast does a good job or not.

Alan Donahue’s platform set captures little of the vastness of the Yorkshire moors and the up and down slide of the window and door become tiresome quickly.

If you’re an avid fan of the novel, you might want to see this. If not, skip it.

   
   
Rating: ★½
  
  

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REVIEW: Frost/Nixon (TimeLine Theatre)

 

The Man Behind the Monster

 

 Frost (Andrew Carter) interviews Nixon (Terry Hamilton)

   
TimeLine Theatre presents
  
Frost/Nixon
  
Written by Peter Morgan
Directed by
Louis Contey
at
TimeLine Theatre, 615 W. Wellington (map)
through October 10  |  tickets: $18-$38  |  more info

reviewed by Keith Ecker 

It’s not a stretch to cast Richard Nixon as a monster. He was a cantankerous soul who rabble-roused around an unpopular war and abused the presidency to allegedly commit felonious acts. His legacy is a sobering stain on the political landscape that serves as a reminder for others to not blindly trust those we choose to lead.

FrostNixon_101 The real challenge of this work is portraying Nixon as a human being, a man of both wants and desires as well as fears and frustrations. To put it another way, the challenge is to bring out Nixon’s humanity while simultaneously highlighting his treachery.

TimeLine Theatre’s production of Frost/Nixon brilliantly toes this line.

The play details the famous 1977 interview with the disgraced president. Those producing the interview meant for it to be the trial that Nixon never got, thanks to a full pardon by Gerald Ford. Unfortunately, spearheading the questioning was a character with questionable skills—David Frost (Andrew Carter). Frost was an international playboy who hosted successful talk shows in the U.K. and Australia. At one point, he had an unsuccessful run in America. This failure forever nagged him, and so he devised a plan to restore his good name. That plan was to nab the biggest interview of the decade.

Meanwhile, Nixon (Terry Hamilton) was self-sequestered in his California mansion. He was defeated. He had achieved the highest position of public office only to fall so very far. However, word of Frost’s desire to conduct an interview piqued his interest. For one, the financial agreement on the table to secure the interview would make Nixon a very rich man. But moreover, doing a softball interview with a British talk show host could help him restore his good name.

Of course, as history reveals, Nixon agreed to multiple sit-down interviews with Frost. And although the majority of tape captured during these sessions was merely a lesson in Nixon’s uncanny ability to evade tough questioning, it eventually led to a rare and honest glimpse into the mind of a megalomaniac.

This play is nothing without a good Nixon, and Hamilton’s portrayal of the man is executed with great finesse. There is obviously a conscious balance between depicting Nixon as a human and a villain with the ultimate goal to strike at the heart of truth. One way this is accomplished is by subtlety yet powerfully revealing to us Nixon’s insecurities. For example, there is a scene in which Nixon questions whether a pair of laceless Italian shoes is too effeminate for him to wear. In this scene, Hamilton broadcasts Nixon’s childlike need for reassurance, knocking the man down to mortal proportions. It is also fortunate that Hamilton never verges on caricature, opting to veer away from political cartoon. Rather, he aims for documentary.

 

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Director Louis Contey is a real talent. His use of blocking to create dramatic tension between Frost and Nixon is just another pleasurable subtlety of this production. Specifically, his work is highlighted in a scene in which an inebriated Nixon makes a late-night phone call to Frost. Although the two speak from separate locations, Contey puts them in the same space. There they move around each other and glare at one another in a battle of intimidation.

The set design by Keith Pitts also enhances the quality of the production. Large projections, created by Mike Tutaj, are cleverly used to alter the setting, from Nixon’s California home to a trans-Atlantic flight. Televisions flank both sides of the stage where closed-circuit cameras broadcast the historic interview. This gives us, the theater-going audience, a vision of how the medium of television shaped and influenced the interview.

TimeLine Theatre’s Frost/Nixon digs deep into the psyche of one of our most notorious presidents. Yes, Nixon may not have been an honest man, nor was he necessarily a decent or good man. But he was a man. And although this does not forgive his transgressions, it helps us better understand his weaknesses.

Ultimately, TimeLine has created a triumph of a production. Buy your tickets now while seats remain.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
  
 

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REVIEW: Neverwhere (Lifeline Theatre)

‘Wicked’ isn’t the only dark Oz

 

Neverwhere5

 
Lifeline Theatre presents
 
Neverwhere
 
Adapted by Robert Kauzlaric from the novel by Neil Gaiman
Directed by Paul S. Holmquist
Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
Through June 20  |  Tickets: $30  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Alice fell through the rabbit hole. Dorothy was swept up by a tornado.

For good-hearted, mild-mannered Richard Mayhew, unlikely hero of Neil Gaiman’s dark fantasy Neverwhere, now in a world-premiere adaptation at Rogers Park’s Neverwhere1always innovative Lifeline Theatre, it’s stumbling on and aiding an injured girl that propels him into a strange new world — London Below – a grimmer, underground  version of the city he knows, a place of sewers and magic and people who fell through cracks … and from which there can be no return. Like Wicked, the 1995 Gregory Maguire novel from which the lighter, happier Broadway musical was adapted, Neverwhere, gives us an upended and blackly humorous view of a familiar place.

Directed by Paul S. Holmquist, Kauzlaric’s adaptation, ten years in the making, sticks closely to Gaiman’s 1996 novel, which was in turn based on a teleplay Gaiman did for a BBC miniseries.  Gaiman’s storyline leaves unanswered questions, and so does this play, but his creatively imagined world overcomes the hanging threads. Kauzlaric’s trimming removes some of the most gruesome and ugly bits, retaining most of the action.

The hapless Richard (guilelessly portrayed by Robert Kauzlaric, the playwright) journeys through the bizarre and deadly London Below with the hunted girl, Lady Door (plucky Katie McLean), and her companions, the dodgy, sardonic Marquis de Carabas (a wonderfully dry and laconic Chris Hainsworth) and the enigmatic bodyguard Hunter (Kyra Morris, in fighting trim). They’re off to see the angel Islington (somewhat over-deliberately played by Phil Timberlake) in an effort to find out who ordered Door’s whole family murdered and how Richard can, like Dorothy, go home again. The wizard … er, angel … sends them on a quest to bring back a mysterious key.

 

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Lifeline does its usual beautifully inventive job of bringing the written word to the stage, with just a few minor flaws. Here and there, unexplained lines leftover from the book may be puzzling to those who haven’t read it. Mikhail Fiksel‘s eerie original music fits the mood quite well, but in several places underlying music or sound-effects distract from the dialogue. A few longish monologues slow the action (and add up to a 2½-hour-long production).

Alan Donahue’s multi-level set, full of doors and tunnels and ladders, goes a long way toward evoking the forbidding London Below, aided by puppets created by Kimberly G. Morris and rich performances from Patrick Blashill, Christopher M. Walsh and Elise Kauzlaric as a series of creepy, colorful, underworld characters. Sean Sinitski is spine-chillingly funny as the loquacious and sinister Mr. Croup.

Gaiman fans should be thrilled, but you needn’t know the novel to enjoy this lively fantasy adventure on stage.

 
 
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

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Note: Not suitable for young children. Free parking available in the lot at the northeast corner of Morse and Ravenswood avenues, with free shuttle-van service before and after shows.

A scene from the BBC’s Neverwhere

Neil Gaiman on Neverwhere, Naperville, Feb. 2010

  
   

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REVIEW: Aftermath (Signal Ensemble Theatre)

Life of Brian – a rolling visionary

 

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Signal Ensemble Theatre presents
 
Aftermath
 
Written and directed by Ronan Marra
at Raven Theatre, West Stage, 6157 N. Clark  (map)
through June 6th  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

I can’t hear the name Rolling Stones without the sound of “Jumping Jack Flash” appearing in my head. I can clearly see the Stones on Ed Sullivan – menacing and Aftermath 5kind of nasty in a sexy bad boy way. The tabloid stories and biographies ‘as told to’ are plentiful with the legendary musicians looking into the camera or artfully demurring. The Signal Ensemble Theatre’s production of Aftermath peers into the unsung genius of Brian Jones.

Writer/director Ronan Marra discovered Brian Jones’ story as a teenager and developed this play as a balanced and loving homage. Nick Vidal as Mick Jagger infuses a frisky and explosive energy into the performance. He slightly resembles Jagger and has a decent voice. Vidal veers into the operatic when singing “Lady Jane,” which threw me off a bit. Marra’s Jagger is an ego driven and preening icon. The reenactments of group interviews come off as both funny and painful to see how Jagger downplayed Jones’ contributions to music. He made himself and Keith Richards the centerpieces instead of acknowledging collaboration as a group.

Aaron Snook plays the role of Brian Jones. Snook speaks directly to the audience post mortem. He plays the drug-addled and mentally ill Jones with a childlike quality. Snook imparts a sympathetic edge that tempered the violence and tantrums for which Jones is remembered. Marra’s direction has Jones literally fading away, the lights making his blonde hair and pale skin even more so.

Comic relief comes in the form of Joseph Stearns and Bries Vannon as Keith Richards and Charlie Watts respectively. Richards’ drug use still leaves people wondering how he is alive. Stearns does a great imitation of Richards and plays the stoner beautifully. In a television interview, Jagger is seen doing most of the talking with the host but the focus is on Richards’ interaction with the host’s sidekick played by Phillip Winston. The best line of the night went to Stearns as well. (I’m thinking of Aftermath 1 getting “whiskey stealing interrogation banshee” put on a tee shirt). Vannon’s depiction of reticent drummer Charlie Watts is excellent in spite of no real physical resemblance. Vannon infuses the role with a dry and sweet manner. The running joke is that Watts always threatened to quit the band but never did.

Ensemble member Simone Roos ably plays the role of rock chick Anita Pallenberg. It has only been a recent occurrence that the women passed around by the bands have been telling their sides of the stories. To Marra’s credit, he writes Pallenberg as more than a groupie. The scenes between Roos and Snook are violent and painful as Jones’ paranoia and insecurity increase from the drugs and fear of abandonment.

Andrew Yearick, in the role of George Harrison, is a nice surprise. He recently appeared in The House of Yes at The Artistic Home Studio (our review ★★★). Yearick portrays a mellow and spiritual Harrison around the time of his exploration into Indian music. He and Snook share a duet on “Norwegian Wood,” self accompanied by guitar and sitar. Harrison is introducing the sitar to Jones as something that is tuned into the player and then they rush through the song, a pacing that is much too fast.

It is to be noted that this talented group of actors actually play the instruments and do a stellar job of it. You’ll no doubt find yourself grooving to the irresistible beats and riffs. On the night that I went, It was pretty evident that most of us were Stones fans.

The theatre is decorated with reenactments of classic Rolling Stones 45 and album covers. The stage is flanked by vertical rows of vinyl records in both sizes and set up for a concert. This is an appropriate choice since it really comes down to the music after an exploration of the legend. Aftermath is a poignant remembrance of Brian Jones and of a time when the world seemed much bigger.

 

  
  
Rating:  ★★★
  
  

Aftermath runs through June 6th, 2010. Thursday, Friday, and Saturdays at 8:30pm, Sundays at 3:30pm. (May 24th performance is at 7:30 pm) Tickets are available at www.signalensemble.com or call 773-347-1350. Be prepared to rock!

 

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