Review: Aces (Signal Ensemble)

        
       

Steinhagen’s characters are fun but lack completed plot

  
  

Aaron Snook, Vincent Lonergan, Joseph Stearns, Jon Steinhagen, Philip Winston and Simone Roos in Signal Ensemble's "Aces" by Jon Steinhagen. (Photo: Johnny Knight)

   

Signal Ensemble presents

   
   

Aces

    

Written by Jon Steinhagen
Directed by Ronan Marra
at Signal Theatre, 1802 W. Bernice Ave. (map)
through June 18th
tickets: $15-$20 |   more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

It’s a challenge for me to watch Joseph Stearns and not imagine him to be the theatrical embodiment of Keith Richards, a persona he nailed even without bearing the most striking resemblance to the rock star god in Signal Ensemble’s Aftermath (our review). Lucky for me in Jon Steinhagen’s new play, Aces, the character Stearns plays is not too far of a stretch from the vice-ridden musician. Director Ronan Marra’s ensemble truly taps into this world perfectly. The characters are all delineated with their own passions and eccentricities. Steinhagen makes some clever but not too obvious 70’s references. Now if only Steinhagen could give his characters a Duke (Joseph Stearns, left)  tries to charm Samantha (Simone Roos, right) with his dance moves, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of “Aces” by ensemble member Jon Steinhagen, directed by Ronan Marra, opening May 14, 2011, 8 p.m., and running Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m., through June 18.  (Photo: Johnny Knight)consistent plot to allow us to invest more interest in them, this play would be something worth betting on. Unfortunately though, what starts as a fun con-artist story with possibilities of a feminist theme on the side, goes every which way attempting to give each character their own equally important arc which ultimately waters down all of them. Aside from a few strong scenes, the fun dwindles as the play progresses.

The tone of the writing is a little like M*A*S*H. We go from screwball comedy to sentimental love and friendship and back again. Throw in some anti-war sentiments, all set in 1975 Vegas. Instead of military surgeons though, Aces deals with the profession of casino card dealers (at least it does for a little while). The setup is a scam being run by a group of dealers and casino workers. The ringleader of the operation is Lloyd (played by the wonderful character actor Vincent Lonergan). The issue at the top of the play though is that one of the dealers has died, and the scam called “Aces” can no longer operate without the proper number of dealers on the floor. In comes Samantha (Simone Roos) as the new blackjack dealer hired. Let the clichéd ‘boob’ jokes begin. The other female in the cast is Linda (played with great complexity by Elizabeth Bagby), the cocktail waitress with an edge and failed hopes.

The original idea is for each of the members of the scam to go out with Samantha and see if she’s the type of individual who might be willing to take part in it. Time soon tells that this gal from Reno can hang with these Vegas low-lifes. She even has the capability to improve the scam. However, Steinhagen vacates the scam storyline around this point and focuses on each individual character, Steinhagen himself playing the alcoholic floor manager who is lonely after his younger brother Pete (an excellent Philip Winston) moves out. Samantha now becomes a tool to explore what’s going on inside each of the other characters and develops a close relationship to Pete, the most innocent of the bunch. The best, most human and intimate scene of the night is between the two of them sitting on the floor around a lamp she buys to help decorate his empty bachelor pad. Everyone in this group is stuck where they are, mostly for money reasons, to which Samantha asks one of the more resonant questions of the night, “Don’t any of you live within your means?”

     
A scene from Jon Steinhagen's new play "Aces", presented by Signal Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Johnny Knight) A scene from Jon Steinhagen's new play "Aces", presented by Signal Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Johnny Knight)
A scene from Jon Steinhagen's new play "Aces", presented by Signal Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Johnny Knight) A scene from Jon Steinhagen's new play "Aces", presented by Signal Ensemble Theatre. (Photo: Johnny Knight)

There is definitely a fair share of zingers in Steinhagen’s script with plenty of “breaking balls” in the same vein as Goodfellas. Some of them land stealthily and other’s don’t, but as with any comedic writing you have to put it in front of an audience to see what gets laughs and the lackluster punch lines can easily be swapped out. More than anything though I just longed to know whose story this was and for the stakes to be higher. Duke’s debt issue, for one, is a little too easily solved.

Simone Roos gives life to this play with her smart, sexy performance playing Samantha as never quite what she seems. Stearns is a delight and his disco dancing is hysterical. Representing the anti-war nomadic class of the 70’s is Aaron Snook’s character, Garrett. Snook masters the art of silence and strums a lovely guitar.

Ronan Marra’s direction gets the swagger correct, but it doesn’t hit sightlines. With three-quarter seating, Marra places characters directly in front of each section of the audience. While it works when you happen to be the particular audience in front of the central action (almost always the center), more often than not you have to settle for an audio experience listening closely to what’s happening on the other side of the room while you can only stare at a blackjack dealer two feet in front of you. Even while there are only two characters on stage, Marra has the actors on the same plane, still making life difficult for the audience in the alley seating sections. Part of the sightline issue derives from Melania Lancy’s set, which is ultimately too flat and two-dimensional, forcing actors to hug the back wall too frequently.

In the end, this is much more sentimental character study than Ocean’s 11 style heist plot. This would be less of a problem, except that there is so much setup to the scam that when Steinhagen decides to drop that part of the story almost entirely it feels like the first half of the play was a waste. Nevertheless, the character interplay is light and a great time. It’s an entertaining group of characters to spend a couple hours with, just don’t expect to feel closure in the end, and be sure to sit in the center.

    
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Samantha (Simone Roos, left) shows Linda (Elizabeth Bagby, right) her dealing tricks, in Signal Ensemble Theatre’s world premiere of “Aces” by ensemble member Jon Steinhagen, directed by Ronan Marra, opening May 14, 2011, 8 p.m., and running Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m., through June 18. (Photo: Johnny Knight)

Signal Ensemble Theatre presents the fourth production in their 2010-2011, eighth anniversary season, the world premiere comedy Aces, written by ensemble member and multiple Jeff award-winner Jon Steinhagen, and directed by Ronan Marra at Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 West Berenice Ave. Performances are Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $20 for full price and $15 for industry/students/seniors. $5 OFF all full-priced tickets on Memorial Day weekend, May 26-29. For more information or to buy tickets call 773-347-1350 or visit www.signalensemble.com. The show runs about 110 minutes with one intermission, and $5 from every ticket sold on June 11 will benefit www.SeasonofConcern.org

Photos by Johnny Knight.

     

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Review: Accidental Death of an Anarchist (Signal Ensemble)

     
     

A powerful, manic waltz with unctuous tyranny

     
     

Joseph Stearns, Elizabeth Bagby, Vincent Lonergan, Signal Ensemble Theatre, Accidental Death of an Anarchist, Dario Fo, Anthony Ingram, Johnny Knight

   
Signal Ensemble Theatre presents
   
Accidental Death of an Anarchist
   
Written by Dario Fo
Directed by
Anthony Ingram
at Signal Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice
(map)
through March 19  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There’s a moment during Signal Ensemble’s production of Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist when the Madman (Joseph Stearns) asks the Commissioner (Eric Paskey), “Weren’t you the warden of that secret prison who did secret things to secret people?” Would that the question didn’t conjure up images of Gitmo, Bagram Airfield and CIA planes transporting black-hooded terrorist suspects to black sites all around the world, yet it does. It’s impossible to complacently relinquish Fo’s brilliant farce to corrupt 1970’s Italy–and that is precisely the point. That world is too much with us. Under Anthony Ingram’s direction, if Signal’s well-oiled and indefatigable cast demonstrates anything, it’s how Fo peels back layer upon layer of mendacious civilization until nothing is left but raw, exposed, abusive power desperately trying to justify itself.

Chris Walsh, Joseph Stearns, Elizabeth Bagby, Vincent Lonergan, Signal Ensemble Theatre, Anthony Ingram, Johnny Knight, Accidental Death of an AnarchistSince chicanery is the order of the day, why have a protagonist that takes any of it seriously but can deal out sophistry as fast and loose as his foes? As the Madman, hauled into the precinct for dozens of illegal impersonations, Stearns conveys Fo’s rage against the machine with urgent and fierce flippancy. Stearns plays Bugs Bunny to Inspector Bertozzo’s (Vincent Lonergan) Elmer Fudd, while, as Officers 1 and 2, respectively, Elizabeth Bagby and Christopher M. Walsh make their greatest comic impact just standing around munching donuts. After bamboozling Bertozzo into releasing him, the Madman discovers that a judge from Rome will arrive shortly to re-open the investigation into police misconduct over the suicide, er, accidental death, of an anarchist in their custody.

Fo’s play is based upon a true incident of police abuse that took place in Italy in 1969 and audiences would do well to refer to the excellent dramaturgical background on the incident posted in Signal’s lobby. A three-year investigation into the incident revealed layer upon layer of deep and disturbing corruption, with links to fascist elements supported by the government. It’s a tribute, not only to Fo’s work, but also to the fast and bold, controlled frenzy of the cast that such heavy and onerous themes never drag or lose their farcical edge.

The shining comic triad of the evening lines up between Madman, the Commissioner and the Sporty Inspector (Anthony Tournis). The Madman impersonates the Roman judge and pulls one version of the incident after another from men desperate to save their careers—“You guys ought to be novelists!” Ah, but novelists rarely get to sport aviator sunglasses to make people respect their authori-tay or engage in inspired near-death acrobatics at the window. Stearns, Paskey and Tournis take the play’s slapstick to the limit and one might easily order their arrest for having too much fun with their parts.

It’s kidding in deadly earnest. Layered into the performances is a thread of ironic camaraderie between the police and their anarchist prey. Again and again, Fo hints at their cheek-by-jowl relationship. Far from being violent rebels, anarchists “enjoy their creature comforts,” and are petite bourgeois. Whereas the police, as spies, make up the majority of anarchist cells and know all the words for a rousing chorus of “The Whole World is My Homeland.”

        
Anarchist #6 Anarchist #7 Eric Pasky, Simone Roos, Signal Ensemble Theatre, Anthony Ingram, Johnny Knight, Accidental Death of an Anarchist

Signal Ensemble shines best when it depicts their bad romance. Act 2, with the introduction of the Reporter (Simone Roos), doesn’t have the same punch as the first. The second act is supposed to drive the comedy into train wreck territory and Stearn’s costumes are a hoot, but his performance comes close to being dangerously preachy. It’s also at risk of being lost for the jumble of slapstick happening toward the back of Signal’s small stage. If only Ingram’s direction could clean up the sightlines a little more. Nevertheless, overall, Accidental Death of an Anarchist is one to see. Signal Ensemble’s production is a powerful, manic waltz through the life-lies Western culture depends upon—necessary medicine, with a ton of farcical sugar to help it all go down.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  
Christopher M. Walsh, Joseph Sterns, Anthony Tournis, Elizabeth Bagby, Anthony Ingram, Johnny Knight, Accidental Death of an Anarchist. Joseph Stearns, Signal Ensemble, Dario Fo, Anthony Ingram, Johnny Knight

Accidental Death of an Anarchist runs Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 3 p.m., through March 19, at the Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 West Berenice Ave. in Chicago. Tickets/info at 773-347-1350; www.signalensemble.com.

All photo by Johnny Knight.

     
     

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REVIEW: The War Plays (Strangetree Group)

  
   

Time travel can be fun!

 

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The Strangetree Group presents
   
The War Plays
   
Written by Emily Schwartz
Directed by Kate Nawrocki
Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport (map)
Through Nov. 20  |  
Tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Go back in time to World War II with Emily Schwartz’s quirky The War Plays, three connected one-acts about love during wartime given an especially charming bridge in The Strangetree Group’s world premiere production.

The War Plays - Strangetree Gourp 002Do get to the theater early — about 20 minutes before the announced curtain time, the cast commences a musical pre-show designed to start your travels back to the 1940s, and it’s well worth your time. Musical Director Jennifer Marschand plays the lead singer in the five-piece Allied Orchestra, performing period numbers such as "G.I. Jive" and "In the Mood" with Scott Cupper, Noah Ginex, Karen Shimmin and Thomas Zeitner. They play throughout the show, providing the segues between each piece. Like many groups that played during the war, they make up in enthusiasm for what they lack in musical talents.

Announcements, costumes and more really convey the flavor of the time. In a wonderful touch as we walked in, I saw one actress drawing a fake stocking seam up the leg of another one.

Once into the theater proper, we get more music (a nice rendition of "Bei Mir Bist Du Schoen," among others, and then the first act, my favorite of the three. In this charmer, Delia Baseman and Marty Scanlon play a pair of teenagers who meet in the London Underground during an air raid. She’s an American, looking after her young brother (Michael Mercier), and hates everything about England and every minute of the war; he’s a cheeky young local who finds the Blitz exciting and romantic. You can practically see the sparks fly as they connect.

Next, Patrick Cannon plays a dull-witted and gawky soldier out at a dance hall with a young woman whose company he’s paid for. It’s not entirely clear what’s going on between them — she’s apparently neither a dime-a-dance girl nor a prostitute, but something in between. Cannon is all ungainly awkwardness while Jenifer Henry ranges from petulant disdain to slow tenderness in a sequence that provides a fine contrast to the first act.

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In the longest and least successful of the three plays, Bob Kruse plays a stiffly unhappy soldier invalided home and unable to get rid of an intrusive visiting relative (a debonair Weston Davis) who, to his embarrassment, brings him face-to-face with the lover he’s abandoned (a grim Elizabeth Bagby). While it features the most overt comedy of the trio, this act has the least heart.

Including the pre-show, the whole thing runs about an hour and 15 minutes. The War Plays is a short trip back in time, but a fun one.

  
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

The War Plays - Strangetree Gourp 001

Photographer: Tyler Core

   
   

Production Cast

Elizabeth Bagby, Delia Baseman, Patrick Cannon, Scott Cupper, Weston Davis, Noah Ginex, Jenifer Henry, Bob Kruse, Jennifer Marschand, Michael Mercier, Marty Scanlon, Karen Shimmin, Thomas Zeitner

   
   

REVIEW: All Saints Day (Ruckus Theatre)

A Superb Ruckus

 

 

Pictured in The Ruckus’ production of All Saints’ Day: 44 Poems About Jeffrey Jones are (l to r) Elizabeth Bagby as Non-Tot and Kevin Crispin as Tot.  Photo by Lucas Gerard Photography.

   
Ruckus Theater presents
   
All Saints’ Day
   
Written by Ron Riekki
Directed by
Brian Ruby
at
the side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis Ave. (map)
through September 26  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

It’s been quite a while since I’ve had such a good laugh or a mind challenge in the theatre. I believe that the theatre is an art that challenges, enlightens, inspires and provokes. All of these qualities are present in All Saints’ Day: A.K.A. 44 Poems About Jeffrey Jones. It’s made clear that this Jeffrey Jones is not he guy from “Ferris  Bueller” but a playwright who also wrote Pictured in The Ruckus’ production of All Saints’ Day: 44 Poems About Jeffrey Jones is Elizabeth Bagby as Non-Tot. All Saints’ Day begins performances on September 2 and runs through September 26 at The Side Project Theatre (1439 W Jarvis Ave). For more information, visit ruckustheater.org. Photo by Lucas Gerard Photography.about Halloween and inspired writer Ron Riekki for this production. However, the story of the actor Jeffrey Jones would have fit right in with this play.

All Saints’ Day presents vignettes, at varying paces, showing the American tradition of trick-or-treating. Do you remember the feeling when you approached the door of the neighborhood crazy lady or the family with cars on blocks in the front yard? This play takes us into the homes and psyches of those folks and others whose doors perhaps you were too timid to approach. The vignettes represent different eras in global history from an American perspective. What lay beyond the door and who walks up to the door?

There are three characters in this play with names from the absurdist tradition. We have Tot, Non-Tot, and Other played by Kevin Crispin, Elizabeth Bagby, and Mathew Humphrey respectively. Ms. Bagby is brilliant as the Non-Tot behind the door. She inhabits the characters at whiplash speed, hilarity and incandescent pathos. Her chemistry with Mr. Crispin as Tot is spot on and electric. It is a surprise every time Tot knocks on the door and says, “trick or treat!” Mr. Crispin is a wonder of physicality and comic timing. He and Ms. Bagby cover a time capsule of Halloween horrors that still reverberate in American culture every time the calendar approaches October 31st. The Tylenol poisonings, cyanide in candy straws, animal waste dipped in chocolate and dispensed by a seemingly sweet neighbor is presented. The play asks the question – whose fault is it really?

One unforgettable vignette presents a television remote gone mad. Non-Tot is watching television when the remote takes on a personality and power beyond her control. Tot knocks on the door and she discovers that she can switch his personas through the remote. Non-Tot furiously hits the clicker as Tot goes from LBJ on Vietnam to Cool Hand Luke to Princess Diana and a still funny George W. Bush. Bagby and Crispin then recite lines simultaneously as they collapse to the floor. This was one of the serious parts of the show as they speak of Joe Hill, The Weathermen, and Dr. King, and others who have advocated for change on many different platforms. It did not break the rhythm of the action with the serious nature of the subject matter because all of comedy has a serious core of truth.

Pictured in The Ruckus’ production of All Saints’ Day: 44 Poems About Jeffrey Jones is Matthew Humphrey as Other. All Saints’ Day begins performances on September 2 and runs through September 26 at The Side Project Theatre (1439 W Jarvis Ave). For more information, visit ruckustheater.org. Photo by Lucas Gerard Photography. In between the scenes Matthew Humphrey as Other injects comic brilliance and levity with placards announcing the scenes. He portrays a priest, a boxing round cutie holding a bout sign and prancing about the ring, and my favorite was an inspired use of whipped cream as body art. Mr. Humphrey is mute for most of the play and yet is integral to the movement, pacing, and dialogue. He is heard offstage in some of the scenes and appears in a speaking role in the final vignette.

The final scene is a departure from the other vignettes, offering a contrast from the American sensibility with a foray into pre-war Germany in the late 1930’s. At first, it’s quite jarring as Mr. Crispin knocks on the door as a character named Ernst and the device of Halloween seems to become the pagan origins of the holiday. It is more of a Samhain feel when the veil between life and death is said to be more evident than any other time of the year. Ernst has come to say goodbye to his friend Franz as the German Workers Party has taken a sinister turn rounding up Jews and displaying an alarming nationalistic fervor – the playwright is alluding to the origins of how hatred takes hold. Ernst gets a trick when he knocks on the door expecting to find familiarity but Franz and his mother have taken on a new guise. Hatred and bigotry are unmasked and unleashed on the world like a virus. That era still holds ominous power as people all over the planet imitate Nationalism to varying degrees. The fact that Riekki can reduce this behavior to brilliant farce is a saving grace of recognition and possible redemption.

Pictured in The Ruckus’ production of All Saints’ Day: 44 Poems About Jeffrey Jones is Kevin Crispin as Tot. All Saints’ Day begins performances on September 2 and runs through September 26 at The Side Project Theatre (1439 W Jarvis Ave). For more information, visit ruckustheater.org. Photo by Lucas Gerard Photography. Pictured in The Ruckus’ production of All Saints’ Day: 44 Poems About Jeffrey Jones are (l to r) Matthew Humphrey as Other and Elizabeth Bagby as Non-Tot. All Saints’ Day begins performances on September 2 and runs through September 26 at The Side Project Theatre (1439 W Jarvis Ave). For more information, visit ruckustheater.org. Photo by Lucas Gerard Photography.
Pictured in The Ruckus’ production of All Saints’ Day: 44 Poems About Jeffrey Jones are (l to r) Elizabeth Bagby as Non-Tot and Kevin Crispin as Tot. All Saints’ Day begins performances on September 2 and runs through September 26 at The Side Project Theatre (1439 W Jarvis Ave). For more information, visit ruckustheater.org. Photo by Lucas Gerard Photography. Pictured in The Ruckus’ production of All Saints’ Day: 44 Poems About Jeffrey Jones are (l to r) Elizabeth Bagby as Non-Tot and Kevin Crispin as Tot. All Saints’ Day begins performances on September 2 and runs through September 26 at The Side Project Theatre (1439 W Jarvis Ave). For more information, visit ruckustheater.org. Photo by Lucas Gerard Photography.

All Saints’ Day” contains language, violence, and portrayal of drug use. The LSD scene is one of the funniest things I have seen ever. The treat offered by Non-Tot is two hits of acid to Tot. He doesn’t feel anything and then Other appears as a dinosaur before morphing into a giant pig. This is theatre on the edge and I loved it.

The play is presented in a minimalist manner in a small black box theatre. The props (Joshua Davis) and scenery (J. Clay Barron) are all very simple but brought to life by the brilliance of the actors and the direction of Ruckus member Brian Ruby. This kind of theatre is what makes Chicago a place where New York comes to look for inspiration and fresh material to bring to their stages. Applause to Ruckus and an appeal to keep the lunacy evident lest we forget.

   
   
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

All Saints’ Day: AKA 44 Poems about Jeffrey Jones runs through September 26th at Side Project Theatre at 1439 W. Jarvis in Rogers Park and steps from the Red Line Jarvis stop. More information is available at www.ruckustheater.org This is a great opening for the theatre season. It’s a short run-do not miss it!

 

     
     

 

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Review: Shakespeare’s King Phycus (Strangetree Group)

A hilarious romp through Shakespeare’s tragedies

 phycus-eyeout

   
The Strange Tree Group presents
  
Shakespeare’s King Phycus
  
Written by Tom Willmorth
Directed by
Ira Amyx
at
The Building Stage, 412 N. Carpenter (map)
Through July 31  | 
tickets: $25-$45  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Written in 1988, Shakespeare’s tale of King Phycus and his children Juliet and Hamlet is the bard’s first tragedy, a clunky amalgamation of characters and situations that could best be described as a rough draft of the legendary Tragedies that followed. Thought lost for centuries, the play reappeared in the 19th century, but phycus-plotting productions were halted for their connections to the Astor Place Riot and the assassination of President Lincoln.

Yes, the history of Tom Willmorth’s Shakespeare’s King Phycus is completely fictional, but it is the sort of detail that shows Strange Tree’s commitment to their concept. This isn’t a Monty Python-esque farce (it totally is) – this is Shakespeare’s lost tragedy, and the actors perform it with all the grandeur and importance a forgotten Elizabethan masterpiece deserves. In contrast with the ridiculous content of the play, the actors’ stern execution of their craft enhances the comedy of the piece, whether it is the street battle waged with weaponized fruit or the Nurse’s stream of dead baby retorts.

Shakespeare’s King Phycus is at its best when the humor comes from exaggerating the absurdities of Shakespeare’s plots and language. The language of the play, like any rough draft, needs a lot of work. The alliteration is overly aggressive, the rhymes are awkward and many times nonsensical, and wordplay is used so frequently that oftentimes characters lose track of what they’re even talking about. But that’s the point, especially when it comes to the heaps of classic lines that Willmorth butchers with his horrendous poetry, e.g., “By the picking of my nose, something wicked this way goes.” Yuck.

phycus-stareoutWithout the work of the talented ensemble, the script would collapse under its own weight, but the actors’ handle on Shakespeare’s language adds integrity to the play. An Elizabethan rendition of “Who’s on first?” is funnier because the actors are on point with the rapid fire banter of broken up iambic pentameter. Conversely, Friar Don’s (Scott Cupper) final monologue is completely unintelligible, showing that this cast doesn’t need consonants and vowels to be funny.

With each actor playing multiple roles, Shakespeare’s King Phycus is a demanding show performed admirably as the versatile ensemble transitions between roles  seamlessly. Michael T. Downey is noteworthy in the title role, particularly post-eye-gouging, playing the fantastic physical gag so well that the joke never gets old. phycus-chorus-pointingBob Kruse’s wonderfully creepy necrophile Gloucester and Carolyn Klein’s vulgar Nurse are also standouts, with both actors taking the exaggerations of the language and matching it with appropriately outrageous physicalizations.

As funny as Shakespeare’s King Phycus is, when Willmorth relies too heavily on pop culture references (“Isn’t it Ionic, don’t you think?) and unnecessary fan service (Friar Don is a ninja!), the results are groan-worthy and take away from the timelessness of the concept. Some of the jokes go on a little too long, like a dance sequence between Brutus, Romeo, and Sardonicus that could use a good minute of cutting, but the production still stands up well despite these flaws. Like the play’s fictional history, the little details are what make Shakespeare’s King Phycus great, the chamber arrangement of “La Cucaracha” playing in the background of the ball, the improv warm-ups of Hamlet’s friends Goldenberg and Rosenstein. For anyone that loves Shakespeare and wants to see some of his best plays reconstructed then put together in the most haphazardly hilarious way possible, Strangetree’s productions will not disappoint.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: People We Know (the side project)

Perpetuating denial through the company we keep

 

people-we-know7

   
the side project presents
  
People We Know
  
by Robert Tenges
directed by
Adam Webster
at
side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis  (map)
through June 6th  tickets: $18  |  more info

reviewed by Robin Sneed

There are plays that require the delicacy of actors turned surgeons to give them breath. In the complex, People We Know, written by Robert Tenges, the doctors are in the house. First, you will be hit with the anesthesia of sarcastic and witty one liners, then they get down to the work of dismantling the empty social connection of three people-we-know5 couples who live in a faded post-modern framework of loose traditional roles and well-rehearsed lines.

The play opens a year after Paul, played by C. Sean Pierman, has been accused and convicted of sexually abusing a young student in his class. In a series of flashback scenes, Pierman plays the days leading up to Paul’s incarceration as carefully and exactly as a man about to cut into a human heart . He does a quiet slow shuffle of a dance when he decides to tell his friend Eric, played by Robert Koon, of his dilemma. Sliding between the incident as being nothing to worry about to the fear he is in serious trouble, Pierman never resorts to expectedly creepy signals or overt body language. He deftly and believably maintains a teacher dude and boyish Peter Pan-never-grew-up quality. He elicits sympathy, but not too heavily; this is subtlety to its very core.

Robert Koon’s approach to Eric is bold, with a Teflon coating, masking an emptiness that is remarkable in its thoroughness. Eric is a narcissist of the first order, but not of the dramatically and emotionally overwrought variety we typically see. In the conversation in which Paul tells him he has been accused of molesting a child, Eric immediately refers to the child as a liar. He laughs at the situation heartily, and tells his friend they will discover by way of tests that the child is certainly lying and she and her family will owe Paul an apology. Koon hits this flat world of taking sides by way of strong language, without care for actual outcomes, perfectly.

Alcohol, played by wine and beer, is a constant companion to all of the characters in this work. These are not raging drunks, but people who must have a glass of medication in their hands most all the time or the vapid existence they carefully tend might reveal itself as such. The play is shot through with moments of clarity. Fleeting, never lit on, but sipped quietly away into the gentle buzz of the status quo.

Dianne, Paul’s wife, played by Amy Johnson, remains emotionally lost a year after her husband’s sentencing. The other couples have shunned her with silence, and are only just inviting her back into the fold at the beginning of the play. They had no idea what to do with her, about her, or for her, and so quietly erased her from their lives through lack of contact. Johnson provides the razor to this piece in brief moments, pinpointing the apathy, the recited lines, then resumes her own role as the wife who still loves her husband, stands by her man, however unattached to the idea she may feel. There is no fervor in this, but a longing that he will reveal himself to her emotionally, giving her a kind of salvation for her long suffering.

Joshua, played by Andy Hager, is the would be earthy man who sees good in love and family. If not for the dead quiet force called support by his wife, he would be seemingly content and accepting of life as it is. Hager plays this with a keen sense of humor and an insight into the situation that no one around him seems to catch on to. Elizabeth Bagby, as his wife, Hannah, brings pathos to a woman who only need shift her attention to a different man with a better job to fulfill her own expectations and maintain her vision of what life should be like. Through tears, Hannah mourns her choice to leave Joshua for what she perceives as bigger and better things, but there is a steeliness to achieve that trumps love. Hagby brings all of this with a quiet intensity that is riveting.

 

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The root of this piece is Maddy, played by Kirsten D’Aurelio. Maddy is part childless earth mother, part old school socialite whose softness and understanding allow for this play of ultimately apathetic friends to swirl around her without real upheaval. She will take care of everyone, she can be counted on. Without her, this world would crumble, starting with her husband, Eric. She willingly pretends to be young women he knows to arouse him sexually as unabashedly and sweetly as if she has no real idea the cost to her emotionally. At times she seeks freedom, but slips back into her roots – that of matron without true motherhood; mothering a man child who still wants to have a baby even after she has had several miscarriages. D’Aurelio plays this without any of the clichés of the enabler. This is a unique performance of unwavering strength; one that includes burgeoning homosexuality, all offered without guile.

In People We Know, the audience gets to know the characters quite well. Within the play, they stand separate from each other only brushing by at arms length. Could any of these outwardly appearing friends have known Paul was molesting a child? No, because the structure of their lives, the agreed upon language, the self absorption, doesn’t allow for it. Only Paul’s wife, Dianne, has a hint from a memory of their wedding night. Sitting there in her perfect white dress, with her perfect new husband, sipping champagne, doubt crosses her face as he tells her a story about his childhood. She smiles the wistful smile of an already weary performer and shrugs it away, going on to build her perfect glass house.

Directed with quiet and steady pressure by Adam Webster, People We Know does not seek to flay and enrage, soothe or heal. It only seeks to impress that we don’t know who we don’t know by careful orchestration of ourselves and the people around us. We play our roles well, choose others who play their roles well, perpetuating damage by a refusal to live truthfully with ourselves and the people around us. It is within this framework that navels are gazed at while children are hurt, growing up to play those same roles in a never ending show of polite and potentially soul killing company.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

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