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: 1001 (Collaboraction)

A breathtaking testament to the power of storytelling

 

 Pictured (left to right): Joel Gross (as Shahriyar) and Mouzam Makkar (as Scheherazade) in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia

  
Collaboraction presents
  
1001
  
Written by Jason Grote
Directed by
Seth Bockley
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through October 9  |  tickets: $15-$25  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Jason Grote’s 1001 uses the story of “The Arabian Nights” as the foundation for a centuries-spanning epic that examines the nature of stories and the ways in which they shape and define the world. After a nuclear blast starts the play, the One-Eyed Arab (H.B. Ward) begins to tell the familiar story of the murderous sultan Shahriyar (Joel Gross) and his crafty bride Scheherazade (Mouzam Makkar), who tells stories that never end to elude her death the next morning.

The Wedding Feast from Collaboraction's "1001" - Photo by Saverio Truglia From there, Grote presents amidst stories about Prince Yahya al-Husayni’s (Edgar Miguel Sanchez) lust for his twin sister and Sinbad’s (Ward) afternoon with Jorge Luis Borges (Antonio Brunetti), the narrative of two 21st-century Columbia students takes shape: Dahna (Makkar), an Arab, and Allen (Gross), a Jew. Grote masterfully intertwines the various story threads, bleeding slapstick comedy, relationship drama, political criticism, and post-modern philosophy together to create a play that defies categorization. Under Seth Bockley’s clear and concise direction, the cast navigates the complex script with a momentum that never stops, playing multiple characters and switching between genres without ever skipping a beat.

As Shahriyar, Gross shows an amazing comedic talent, particularly in his handle of malapropisms (“ceviche” for “cesspool” is my favorite), which can cause more groans than laughs in the wrong hands. As a sultan that face palms his wives to shush them, Gross shows no sense of tact or restraint, which increases his comedic worth without diminishing his threat. In his first scene as Allen, Gross delivers a fantastic monologue of incredible difficulty, as the mentally fractured character recalls the events that have led to his residence in the underground tunnels of Manhattan.

Makkar has the least comedic parts of the show, but she helps ground the play by creating characters that feel more realistic than her funnier co-stars. As the primary storyteller, she has fantastic diction, and her voice commands attention when she speaks. The only other female of the cast, Carly Ciarrochi gets the brunt of the humor, and she handles it fantastically. Ciarrochi has a talent for goofy voices, but it is her comedic timing that makes her scenes so memorable, like her Act 1 hysterics as one of Shahriyar’s virgin brides about to be killed.

Pictured (left to right) Antonio Brunetti and Edgar Miguel Sanchez in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia. Pictured (back to front) Edgar Miguel Sanchez and Mouzam Makkar in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia H.B. Ward in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia.
Pictured (left to right): Carly Ciarrochi, Edgar Miguel Sanchez and Joel Gross in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia Pictured (left to right): Mouzam Makkar (as Dahna) and Joel Gross (as Alan) in "1001". Photo by Saverio Truglia.

The rest of the cast does admirable work playing a plethora of different characters, giving each one a distinct physicality and voice so that no clarity is lost. Ward’s Sinbad stands out for his complete lack of awe at the spectacular sights he encounters on his journey, with Ward underplaying each of the sailor’s memory for maximum comedic effect.

The brilliance of the script comes from the ways in which Grote uses the fantastic – and oftentimes comic – stories that Scheherazade tells to enrich Dahna and Allen’s relationship. Towards the end of the play, Scheherazade asks the audience, “What are any of us but a collection of stories?” In that moment the story within a story within a story structure of the play makes perfect sense, revealing the limitless potential in every person to imagine and create at any moment. Collaboraction’s 1001 is an inspiration, and with only a few more weeks before the end of the run I suggest you hurry to get your tickets.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
   
  

1001_photo by Saverio Truglia_7573

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REVIEW: The Real Inspector Hound (Signal Ensemble)

Hammed-up Stoppard fails to find the laughs

 

(left to right) Moon (Philip Winston) and Birdboot (Jon Steinhagen) comment on the play while Cynthia (Meredith Bell Alvarez) and Inspector Hound (Joseph Stearns) act in the play, in Tom Stoppard’s 1968 satire “The Real Inspector Hound,” Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their own venue - running through September 18.

        
Signal Ensemble Theatre presents
    
The Real Inspector Hound
      
By Tom Stoppard
Directed by Ronan Marra
Signal Ensemble Theatre, 1802 W. Berenice (map)
Through Sept. 18  | 
Tickets: $15–20  |  more info

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

From the time the house opens on Signal Ensemble Theatre’s The Real Inspector Hound, to the close of the play, Charles Schoenherr lies unmoving on stage while the other characters cavort around him, never noticing this still figure at stage rear until nearly the end of the one-act comedy.

It just might be the best performance of the play.

Any theater reviewer who takes aim at Tom Stoppard‘s 1968 comedy risks being classified with Birdboot and Moon, the two pompous critics on whom the play focuses. Stoppard, once a critic himself, mercilessly skewers theater writers, painting them as arrogant, self-absorbed and none too ethical.

The critics comment on the play within a play taking place in front of them in highly affected terms, chat through the action, munch chocolates and begin to write their reviews mid-play. Birdboot (Jon Steinhagen), a married, middle-aged philanderer, flaunts his position to entice pretty actresses while piously proclaiming he does no such thing, while Moon (Philip Winston), his paper’s no. 2 critic, continually laments his second-string status. The two put in some comic turns, but they aren’t enough to overcome the broad strokes with which Director Ronan Marra paints the rest of the show.

The meta-play, an exaggerated English country-house mystery, a la The Mousetrap, takes places in what Mary O’Dowd as Mrs. Drudge, the creepy, scenery-chewing housekeeper, tells us is the "drawing room of Lady Muldoon’s country residence one morning in early spring." Scenic Designer Melania Lancy has created a fine drawing-room set in Signal’s spiffy new theater, the former home of now Los Angeles-based Breadline Theatre Group, a 50-seat venue in Chicago’s North Center neighborhood.

(left to right) Cynthia (Meredith Bell Alvarez) listens to Mrs. Drudge's (Mary O'Dowd) story about the new visitor, in Tom Stoppard’s 1968 satire “The Real Inspector Hound,” Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their own venue. Photo by Johnny Knight

(left to right) Cynthia (Meredith Bell Alvarez) flirts with Inspector Hound (Joseph Stearns) while Mrs. Drudge (Mary O'Dowd) takes notice, in Tom Stoppard’s 1968 satire “The Real Inspector Hound,” Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their own venue. Photo by Johnny Knight (left to right) Mrs. Drudge (Mary O'Dowd), Inspector Hound (Joseph Stearns), and Cynthia (Meredith Bell Alvarez) react to a loud noise outside of the house, in Tom Stoppard’s 1968 satire “The Real Inspector Hound,” Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their own venue.  Photo by Johnny Knight

Wealthy widow Lady Cynthia Muldoon (Meredith Bell Alvarez), is entertaining her lover, Simon Gascoyne (John Blick) and — to his embarrassment — Felicity Cunningham (Katie Genualdi), the ingenue he’s also been seeing. Added to the menage is the wheelchair-bound Major Magnus Muldoon (Colby Sellers), half-brother to Lady Cynthia’s late husband, who lusts after his hostess. Meanwhile, the radio announces that a murderous madman is loose in the neighborhood and Inspector Hound (Joseph Stearns), a dog of a police detective, arrives on the scene.

As the play becomes more existential, the critics break through the fourth wall and get drawn into the action on stage. In this production, comic business is piled so high that the parody becomes a parody of itself, laden with overdrawn gestures and pointless shtick, such as when characters continually lift a telephone receiver for no apparent reason. It doesn’t help that the pace crawls.

Through it all, Schoenherr lies, still and untwitching. That’s acting.

   
  
Review: ★½
  
  

Note: Allow time for finding street parking, as well as extra time for traveling to the theater on nights when the Cubs play at home.

 (L to R) Birdboot (Jon Steinhagen) and Moon (Philip Winston) write their reviews of the play during the play, Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their new venue   Photo by Johnny Knight. (L to R) Birdboot (Jon Steinhagen) and Moon (Philip Winston) write their reviews of the play during the play, Signal Ensemble Theatre’s inaugural production in their new venue   Photo by Johnny Knight.

        
        

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REVIEW: Aftermath (Signal Ensemble Theatre)

Life of Brian – a rolling visionary

 

Aftermath 2 Aftermath 5Aftermath 1  
  
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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