Review: Hickorydickory (Chicago Dramatists)

  
  

Despite inconsistencies, provocative tale sets mind reeling

  
  

Joanne Dubach, Thomas Gebbia and Gail Rastorfer in a scene from "Hickorydickory" by Marisa Wegrzyn, directed by Russ Tutterow. (Photo credit: Chicago Dramatists)

      
Chicago Dramatists presents
   
  
Hickorydickory
   
   
Written by Marisa Wegrzyn
Directed by Russ Tutterow
at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through June 12  | 
tickets: $32  |  more info

Reviewed Catey Sullivan

In Hickorydickory, Chicago playwright Marisa Wegrzyn has penned a piece with the potential for becoming a mind-bending, provocative black comedy. With bloody and disturbing – and bloody disturbing – finesse, she spins a story that’s part smart dysfunctional family comedy, part coming-of-age drama and part gore-packed thriller.

But – and this is a significant “but” – Hickorydickory in many ways still feels like an early draft rather than a polished, finished product. Clocking in at a few minutes under three hours, it is in serious need of editing. Moreover, Wegrzyn keeps the rules she establishes for her fantasy sci-fi-esque tale of mortality in place only so long as they suit the plot. That means Hickorydickory is marred by false crises. Imagine the story of Rapunzel – girl trapped in an inaccessible tower, prince faced with the challenge of accessing it – but instead of ending with a creative solution involving a hair ladder, happily-ever-after is achieved when the prince suddenly realizes he can fly. Even in the worlds of fantasy, magic and sci-fi, the parameters need to be consistent for the dramatic tension to hold.

Hickorydickory’s chief strength lies in Wegrzyn’s ability to merge the ordinary with the fantastical. Her characters are people you know, a relatable, middle-class family forced to contend with situations one would expect to see wizards or sorcerers or elves in. It’s not really magical realism. Hickorydickory isn’t awash in dreamscapes and phantasms. Instead, it shows the everyday nuts, bolts and blood of living with something that just happens to defy the rules of science and the space-time continuum.

Director Russ Tutterow deftly merges both the ordinariness and the mind-blowing fairy tale-esque elements of Hickorydickory. Early on, the worlds of the real and the surreal clash with an impact that elicits laughter and gasps in the same moment. Attempting to repair an old pocket watch, a watch repair apprentice carefully opens the shiny antique – and gets an eyeful of blood when a crimson geyser spews from he workings. It’s an extraordinary event in an ordinary moment, powerfully realized.

Thoas Gebbia and Gail Rastorfer in a scene from "Hickorydickory" by Marisa Wegrzyn, directed by Russ Tutterow. (Photo credit: Chicago Dramatists)

Clearly, we’re not dealing with Swatches here. Third-generation (at least) clock and watch repairer Jimmy (Thomas Gebbia) specializes in a very particular brand: Mortal clocks. As Jimmy and his wife Kate (Gail Rastorfer) explain with exposition that is seamlessly woven into Wegrzyn’s conversational dialogue, mortal clocks reveal the precise moment – and cause – of their owner’s death. Most people are unaware of their mortal clocks, but every once in a great while someone is tragically born with their mortal clock lodged in the brain instead in its proper place behind the heart. Those unfortunate souls are burdened with knowing when, where and how they will die. Along with that heavy knowledge, they are continually subjected to a relentless tick-tocking countdown toward that final, fatal moment.

Life with this birth defect isn’t living, laments Jimmy’s 17-year-old daughter Dale (Cathlyn Melvin), it’s dying. And Dale is doubly burdened – first with the knowledge of her death’s date, and second with the fact that although she’s only a senior at New Trier, the date is imminent. Her life is a death march, her doom quite literally weighing on her mind.

Dale’s escape from the torturous ticking lies at the center of Wegrzyn’s plot. In flashbacks, we meet Dale’s teenage parents and learn the traumatic circumstances that led to her clock becoming misplaced. We also learn the lore of mortal clockery, much of it kept in a tome that looks, appropriately, like something out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It’s in the user’s manual that Wegrzyn falters. As two generations of clock shop owners assert, the years allotted by a mortal clock are inalterable. Or at least they are until someone conveniently finds a timely exception.

Hickorydickory is marred by inconsistencies in aging as well. Some people with mortal clocks (Dale’s grandmother, Helen) stop aging at a seemingly random point, while others age normally. On a similar note: Dale’s father Jimmy is supposed to be in his early-mid 30s but looks to be in his 50s. Since the math of their ages plays an important role in the plot, his premature aging is a tad distracting.

And for all Hickorydickory’s need of editing, Wegrzyn leaves some tantalizing issues curiously unexamined. Dale’s mother Cari Lee (Joanne Dubach) doesn’t age. Unlike Helen, Cari Lee’s arrested development is explained. But how does a person trapped at 17 survive for decades? Cari Lee is a sort of female Peter Pan, trying to live outside the cocoon of Neverland. But beyond making her a spoiled, immature brat who becomes irritating after her first scene, Wegrzyn fails to plumb Cari Lee’s psychology – or explain why she hasn’t been accused by her neighbors of being a vampire. Another hole: Characters occasionally bump into younger versions of themselves, even though there’s never any indication that mortal clocks can conjure up living, corporeal flashbacks.

Still, Hickorydickory sets the mind reeling with its implications. And the cast, many of them playing two roles, is solid. As Dale and the young incarnation of Kate, Melvin is terrific. She ably captures both Dale’s profound inner sadness at knowing when she’s destined to die and the tough, sarcastic outer exterior she dons to cope with that sadness. Rastorfer is capable as Dale’s loving stepmother Kate, although as Dale’s grandmother Helen she’s rather like Norma Desmond swanning through an especially grandiose audition – which is to say, more melodramatically suited to a silent movie than a realistic drama.

The other wonderfully realized aspect of Hickorydickory is Simon Lashford’s detailed set. Crammed with every imaginable kind of clock – grandfathers down to pocket watches – it’s an emporium where it feels like the past truly lives alongside the present. Barry Bennett’s original music is an evocative mix of echo-ey strings and delicate percussive ticks. If the passage of time made a sound, this would be it.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Chicago Dramatists’ Hickorydickory continues through June 12th at their performance space, 1105 W. Chicago (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $32, and can be purchased from their online box office. For more information, go to chicagodramatists.org.

  

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REVIEW: Too Much Memory (SiNNERMAN Ensemble)

A Terrible Beauty Is Born

 

Antigone (Anna Carini, foreground) illegally burries her brother despite the opposition of her family and the people (standing, from left to right, Dominica Fisher as Chorus, Ebony Wimbs as Jones, Calliope Porter as Eurydice, Jeremy Fisher as Barnes, Brett Schneider as Haemon and Cyd Blakewell as Ismene), in SiNNERMAN Ensemble's Midwest premiere of “Too Much Memory,” Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson's explosive contemporary adaptation of the Greek Antigone tragedy, directed by Anna C. Bahow, October 7-November 13, 2010. Photo by Kevin Viol.

   
 SiNNERMAN Ensemble presents
      
Too Much Memory
       
Written by Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson
Directed by
Anna C. Bahow
at
The Side Project, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
Through Nov. 13  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

The Greek legend that recounts Antigone’s defiance of the tyrant Creon resonates through the centuries. It seems painfully real today because there’s nothing black-and-white about this conflict between anarchy versus order, justice versus law, and religion versus the state. Sophocles’ tragedy makes us see both sides (and sometimes switch them as we watch). Antigone is driven to bury her disgraced brother, a rebel against Creon’s Corinth, so that he may reach the afterlife–so much so that she will accept, and even welcome, martyrdom. Creon cannot permit this rebel to become, even in death, a rallying point for rebellion.

Antigone (Anna Carini, bottom left) buries her brother in defiance of her uncle Creon's law and he attempts to maintain control (standing, from left to right: Calliope Porter as Eurydice, Jeremy Fisher as Barnes, Howie Johnson as Creon, Ebony Wimbs as Jones, Brett Schneider as Haemon, Dominica Fisher as Chorus and Cyd Blakewell as Ismene), in SiNNERMAN Ensemble's Midwest premiere of “Too Much Memory,” Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson's explosive contemporary adaptation of the Greek Antigone tragedy, directed by Anna C. Bahow, October 7-November 13, 2010. Photo by Kevin Viol. Even though these implacable adversaries cannot compromise, the audience sees this as a complex conflict between powerful and often necessary forces—law and order against the constant fight for freedom. In Sinnerman Ensemble’s Midwest premiere of this updated version by topical playwrights Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson, the ancient struggle is colloquially new, with references to torture (Antigone is waterboarded), the media (the chorus, Domenica Fisher, is an on-site TV reporter who can only digest “news bites”), political trappings (Antigone and Creon attack each other on a closed-circuit feed), and Iraq and Afghanistan (the soldiers are confused about their mission or the morality of their superiors). But Antigone and Creon are united by one thing: Each declares, “I have no choice.” Each wants to belong to something greater than themselves, but ultimately they stand or fall on who they are and what they do.

Calling itself “an adaptation of an adaptation of a retranslation,” this new 80-minute version wants to both distance us from the original Athenian premiere (there’s even a strange exchange in French between the principal lovers) and to bring it home with a vengeance. In Anna Bahow’s well-tempered staging Howie Johnson plays Creon as a big-city boss with a very guilty conscience. Brett Schneider, as Creon’s son and Antigone’s fiancé Haemon, is helpless to mediate between his father and his lover. Likewise, as Antigone’s more practical (and surviving) sister Ismene, Cyd Blakewell haplessly agonizes from the sidelines.

Giving voice to a previously silent character, Calliope Porter as Creon’s much neglected wife registers her fury at being taken for granted until she’s forgotten altogether. Equally humanizing is the authors’ treatment of Jones (Ebony Wimbs), a soldier who finds more in common with Antigone than she ever expected.

 

Too Much Memory_03 Too Much Memory_06

Then there’s Anna Carini’s daredevil Antigone, a coiled and almost cool fanatic improbably bent on the ritual sacrifice of her own life to protect a dead brother. She defies logic as much as she does Creon and, as Yeats said about the Irish guerrillas who fought the English, “A terrible beauty is born.” Antigone is not that far in style or substance from the suicide bombers of religious terrorism. She’s part of our world in more ways than one: When she delivers her final loving farewell to Haemon (via the video camera of Jones’ cellphone), it’s strangely touching as well as technological.

That’s the point of an updating that, strangely enough, may in a few years seem more dated than Sophocles’ timeless telling. Keeping it real doesn’t always mean keeping it new. Still, right now it’s got the common touch and needs no translation. The irony, however, of Too Much Memory is that for many audience members the original story of how Oedipus’ daughter sought and met her doom may well be forgotten. Better to refresh your own memory before seeing this very 2010 retelling of a young extremist’s date with death.

   
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Haemon's fights back when his father Creon condemns Haemon's fiance, Antigone, to death (from left to right, Ebony Wimbs as Jones, Brett Schneider as Haemon, Jeremy Fisher as Barnes, Howie Johnson as Creon and Calliope Porter as Eurydice), in SiNNERMAN Ensemble's Midwest premiere of “Too Much Memory,” Keith Reddin and Meg Gibson's explosive contemporary adaptation of the Greek Antigone tragedy, directed by Anna C. Bahow, October 7-November 13, 2010. Photo by Kevin Viol.

 

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REVIEW: The Invasion of Skokie (Chicago Dramatists)

Kibitzing with Gentiles and Nazis in Suburbia

 

(L-R) Bradford Lund, Mick Weber, and Michael Joseph Mitchell star in Steven Peterson’s world premiere production of The Invasion of Skokie, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., running 09/2-10/10/10, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Information about the show at www.chicagodramatists.org and 312-633-0630.  Photo by Jeff Pines.

   
Chicago Dramatists presents
   
The Invasion of Skokie
   
Written by Steven Peterson
Directed by
Richard Perez
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through October 10th  |  tickets:  $32  |   more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

It’s 1978. The preservation of the Jewish heritage is threatened by neo-Nazis and a Gentile boy. Chicago Dramatists presents the world premiere of The Invasion of Skokie by playwright Steven Peterson. The Nazis have won their U.S. Supreme Court case and plan to hold a march in Skokie, a Chicago suburb. Skokie has a large Jewish community that includes Holocaust survivors. On the eve of the supremacy parade, a Jewish family gathers for a typical Shabbat dinner. Or is it typical? Shabbat has been shifted to Saturday. The goy-next-door wants to marry into the Chosen People. Dad is negotiating an arms deal with terrorists. Mom made sun tea! An ordinary family debates traditional and liberal forces infiltrating the homogeneous community. The Invasion of Skokie is Fiddler on the Roof meets “Schlinder’s List” without the music or killing. For a religious culture surviving slavery, persecution and genocide, the Jewish people must now face their toughest opponent, love!

(L-R) Tracey Kaplan and Bradford Lund star in Steven Peterson’s world premiere production of The Invasion of Skokie, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., running 09/2-10/10/10, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Information about the show at www.chicagodramatists.org and 312-633-0630.  Photo by Jeff Pines.Playwright Steven Peterson and Director Richard Perez create a relatable homeland security threat. Dinner is overlapping conversations with generous helpings of tension and a side of ranch dressing diversion. In the lead, Mick Weber (Morry) drives the action with loud declarations and Nazi hate crime hate. Weber delivers a memorable patriarch performance from bull-headed fearless to vulnerable fearful. Weber’s anguish, in an final scene, is a haunting visual.  His match is Cindy Gold (Sylvia). As a Jewish stereotypical mother, Gold is funny pushing food for whatever the ailment or disagreement. Below the surface, Gold reaches gold with poignant musings over day lilies and marrying for life. Tracey Kaplan (Debbie) is the liberal, vegetarian, lawyer daughter. Kaplan and Weber spar with perfect father-daughter opposition. Although the issues are contemporary, the angst is deep rooted in their personal histories. Representing the ‘superior race’ notion, the blond and blue-eyed Bradford R. Lund (Charlie) is charming as a goy-in-love. Despite multiple reasons to flee, Lund is earnest in his willingness to stay. With Nazis in town and family feuding, comedy relief is a necessity. Arriving a week late for dinner, Michael Joseph Mitchell (Howie) is hilarious as the clueless dinner guest.

The Invasion of Skokie is a glimpse at a not-so-familiar but important moment in history. From the picturesque backyard patio (designer Grant Sabin) of suburbia, a Jewish family deals with menacing Nazis and Gentiles rallying against the tranquility.

An important moment in history – but is it still relevant? Today, when same sex marriages are at the forefront of controversy, is inter-religious marriages that big of a deal? This seems like a simplistic question that has an easy answer. The Invasion of Skokie magnificently represents multiple sides to the attacks on the Jewish heritage in 1978. Even now, I’m certain the debate continues. How to preserve 2010+ years of customs and history? Tradition, Tradition, tradition. Even as a shiksa, I get it!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

(L-R) Mick Weber and Cindy Gold star in Steven Peterson’s world premiere production of The Invasion of Skokie, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave.,  running 09/2-10/10/10, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Information about the show at www.chicagodramatists.org and 312-633-0630.  Photo by Jeff Pines.

Running Time: Two hours includes a ten minute intermission

Steven Peterson’s world premiere production of The Invasion of Skokie, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., runs through October 10th – Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Information about the show at www.chicagodramatists.org and 312-633-0630.  For information on parking, go to www.chicagodramatists.org/parking

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REVIEW: Dental Society Midwinter Meeting (Chicago Dramatists)

Dentists extract some painful truths

 

dsmw - cast

   
Chicago Dramatists presents
   
Dental Society Midwinter Meeting
   
Written by Laura Jacqmin
Directed by
Megan Shuchman
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through August 7th  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

This is not this season’s most exciting title, but then the world of dentists isn’t exactly fraught with incident. Dental Society Midwinter Meeting is just that—a carefully chronicled, day-by-day depiction of a real convention, an annual conference of dentists where practitioners catch up on the profession’s latest developments, ethical challenges (insurance fraud and drug abuse), and party heart with conventioneers’ jubilation. Though the Chicago Dental Society’s conference is held at McCormick dsmm - 1 Place in February, playwright Laura Jacqmin moves the 6,000 dentists (and 12,000 vendors who prey on them) to the Skokie Marriott, if only to maintain a safe distance from any possible litigation by the C.D.S.

A true ensemble work, Megan Shuchman’s 80-minute world premiere staging presents the entire meeting through the playful testimony of six participants. We get hour by hour updates on the shenanigans and crises of doctors beset by more than just the problem of paying for central air conditioning or correctly coding their invoices to insurers. The male dentists indulge in male fantasies of wilderness adventure as they shop for hunters’ vests at Old Orchard’s L.L. Bean store. The surgeons munch Panera bread as they exchange gossip. One tries to free herself from an unscrupulous vendor whose tooth whitener is toxic. They sing karaoke (horribly) as they shake their booties on Saturday night.

This year’s conference is beset by a scandal in which the president of the North Shore Regional Dental Society has been caught in adultery with his comely dental hygienist; worse, he’s allowed her to practice advance dental procedures without a license. (Nothing really comes of this red herring.) The dentists are also supposedly caught up in late night discussions on how to clean up their leader’s act and their trade’s questionable image. Can they reform such a morally challenged pursuit?

Other problems fraught with insider details concern a gay dentist whose partner has been caught cheating on his lover’s billing practices. He in turn finds himself sexually manipulated in order to help a colleague in similar hot water.

dentists chicago dramatists castJacqmin certainly knows this medical subculture and examines it compassionately in what amounts to a keyhole-peeping expose. But she’s after more toothy substance than just a breakdown of breakout meetings and keynote speeches. By play’s end, Jacqmin implies that all their talk of self-regulation and moral uplift will, well, decay as the dentists’ bad habits undermine their best intentions. American professionals, it seems, are as trapped by short-sighted and short-term thinking as our corporate overseers.

The real payoff here is no artificially happy resolution of intractable problems but a very believable look at good folks working at cross-purposes to raise standards as much as fees.

    
    
Rating: ★★★
   
    

NOTE: No one under 14 years old will be admitted.

 

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REVIEW: The Artist Needs A Wife (side project)

Cohesive set adds clarity to an otherwise jumbled script

Freud stabs painting

the side project presents: 

The Artist Needs a Wife 

by Jesse Weaver
directed by
Carolyn Klein
thru February 14th (ticket info)

review by Ian Epstein

The side project’s production of The Artist Needs a Wife, by Jesse Weaver, tells the claustrophobic tale of Freud and Mott (played by John Ferrick and Chris Hainsworth).  Freud and Mott are two older, similar looking, starving artist types.  The duo lives in a decrepit hovel that doubles as a garden level apartment with walls so leaky, rusty, and paint-smeared that the canvas of Freud’s many-year masterpiece looks like a natural extension of the wall itself.  His muse is a woman named Whore (Allison Cain).  If she hadn’t dried up at the same pace as Freud’s inspiration to paint, the pair might’ve produced something like a de Kooning together.  Instead, there’s a lot of struggling. 

In fits and starts, Freud and Mott come and go, looking for a touch of Michelangelo’s genius at the bottom of a box of corn flakes or hidden among the pages of a Polish mail-order bride catalog.  When they don’t find inspiration in these places, they make bold dramatic gestures: stabbing the empty box of cornflakes to the wall with a carving knife or tearing the apartment to pieces.  And in a moment rife with dramatic possibility, one even orders the redheaded bride that the other was eyeing in the catalog.  Suddenly the image in the catalog is flesh, and Whore has competition in the form of a sexy little redhead (Ann Sonneville) with a thick stutter.

Katja with knife at Mott's throat Mott punches Whore

All of this sounds great, but the script feels like a sprawling rough draft with too little knowledge of its many subjects to be either funny or serious.  It reaches towards the kind of tension that builds up in the back and forth of a Pinter exchange supplemented with a healthy dose of the absurd – but it doesn’t grab hold of anything.  There isn’t a particularly developed stage vocabulary for lack of inspiration so this prominent thematic thread is hard-pressed to hold an audience’s interest for what feels like an unending two-hours-and-fifteen-minutes.  Whenever passage of time comes up, the actors dismiss it with affected lists — a trait that might work if the actual chronology of the characters were made legible anywhere (the walls, the plot, their intimacy).   There are words misused without intending to be, confusion about Polish being written in Cyrillic (which it isn’t), and profanity that reads like a loud placeholder for what a truly ticked-off down-and-out artist might yell.  All of this leaves the audience excusing too much of the playwright’s shorthand to enjoy the show.

William Anderson‘s set, with its moldy colors, its cramped, cockeyed amenities, and its fragmented ceiling tiles may be the only piece of this production that strikes a tone appropriate to the subject matter.  It is especially admirable for its clarity, economy, and versatility. 

Rating:

FEATURING: Allison Cain, John Ferrick, Christopher Hainsworth, and Ann Sonneville 
CREATIVE TEAM: Carolyn Klein (director) William Anderson (sets), Emily Duffin (props), Miles Polaski (sound), Greg Poljacik (fights), Seth Reinick (lights), and Mieka van der Ploeg (costumes)

Tickets: $18 General, $12 Industry   (with H/R, business card or student ID)
Group discounts available