Review: El Stories – Red Line (Waltzing Mechanics)

     
     

Passionate passengers tell their stories

     
    

CTA red line belmont stop

  
Waltzing Mechanics present
  
El Stories: Red Line
   
Adapted and Directed by Thomas Murray
at
City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through Feb 23  | 
tickets: $10  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

As it crosses the city, the Red Line delivers its own cross-section within every car on each train. This inexhaustible supply of “war stories”–from bemused or outraged commuters and less than passive passengers–supplies the oral histories in Waltzing Mechanics’ hour-long trove of an urban travelogue.

waltzing mechanics - el storiesAs fluid as their material, the ten young performers, smoothly blocked by adaptor Thomas Murray, keep their imaginary el ride real. There’s a story for almost every stop from Jackson to Howard, with the action as random and revealing as accidental encounters and unintended intimacies deliver. Happily, given the Mechanics’ tough-loving sympathy for life’s underdogs, there’s little condescension in these vignettes.

So, not only do we hear about the homeless guy who took a dump on the Jackson stop’s platform, we also learn how in his crazy way he tried to warn his fellow travelers not to look before, well, nature took its course.

Imagine the craziest Red line trip you could take from downtown through Uptown to Rogers Park, with close encounters that are sometimes, well, too close for comfort. Along the wild way you meet a loud huckster who creates fake gospel songs to promote her incoherent promotions. A bicyclist who’s also a serial abuser of books from the CPL carefully wraps up evidence of his neglect. A cute blue-eyed stranger reluctantly reveals why he’s heading west–by showing the needle marks on his arms that he hopes will gradually fade away.

     
el train interior CTA red line wilson stop

A screamer discharges his mania at the station and suddenly silences himself on the train. Between naps, a drunk eats the world’s largest sub sandwich. News of Patrick Swayze’s death spreads like wildfire throughout a car. There’s a caped crusader, two very inept flash-mob “twins,” a diva who cleans her eyeliner brush on the seat, out-of-control kids, an imbecile who thinks the Union Jack is the Nazi swastika, a hand that goes up the wrong butt during a tight trip, a group of guys whose sexist rap is spread all over the car, a jerk who confuses a brush with a push, and all those who just don’t want to get involved, even when someone needs help.

All that the CTA provides so generously for only $2.25 is even more concentrated in this wacky assemblage (which at $10 is a bargain as well). Judging from the title, it’s far from finished, not when there’s still blue, brown, pink, purple and green lines left to expose.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
   

cta subway train

El Stories continues through February 23rd, with 8pm performances Monday-Wednesday @ City Lit Theatre, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr.  $10 general admission at door; advanced tickets available here.  More info: waltzingmechanics.org/EL_Stories.html 


Artists

 

Adapted from original interviews and directed by Thomas Murray

Featuring Bryan Campbell, Nick Chandler, Zack Florent, Lance Hill, Keely Leonard, Eric Loughlin, Adrienne Matzen, Eleni Pappageorge, Shariba Rivers, and Margaret Scrantom.

Stage managed by Tina Frey

  
  

REVIEW: Striking 12 (BoHo Theatre)

  
  

Good music does not a good musical make

  
  

Dustin Valenta, Mallory Nees, Eric Loughlin, Amy Steele

  
BoHo Theatre presents
  
  
Striking 12
 
Book/Music/Lyrics by Brendan Milburn,
Rachel Sheinkin and Valeria Vigoda 
Directed by
Lara Filip
at
BoHo Theatre, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through Jan 8  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Striking 12 isn’t so much a musical as it is a rock concert with a dramatic flare. The self-aware holiday play is about a fake rock band that tells the tale of a lonely man on New Year’s Eve who in turn tells the tale of Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Little Match Girl”. It’s a story within a story within a story, but thanks to the lack of complexity and depth given to each plot line, it’s never particularly difficult to follow.

Dustin Valenta, Amy Steele, Mallory Nees, Eric LoughlinThe play begins with a bit of self-referential comedy and audience interaction. The actors enter and launch into a song about overtures that describes the conventions of an overture. The "band" then informs us that they are all actors before breaking the fourth wall by getting a band name from the audience. (The night I went they were Purple Nurple.)

Eventually, a story emerges about a recently single man (Eric Loughlin) who is alone on New Year’s Eve. Rather than attend the party of his wild and crazy friend (Dustin Valenta), he decides to sit like a bump on a log in the confines of his apartment. He is then visited by a door-to-door saleswoman (Mallory Nees), who is peddling full-spectrum holiday lights that fight off the winter blues. He denies her the sale, but not before having a brief conversation about “The Little Match Girl.” This inspires him to read the short story, which then becomes the dominating plot line of the play.

When there is less than 90 minutes to flesh out several concentric plots, you know the story is going to be a little light. And Striking 12 certainly is lacking when it comes to a compelling through line. But that’s not really what this play is about. Written by three successful musicians/composers (Brendan Milburn, Rachel Sheinkin and Valerie Vigoda), the selling point is the music and the talent of the performers. This certainly is a demanding production in that the actors must not only be able to act effectively, but they must also be able to sing and play instruments as well. And each one of the performers in BoHo Theatre Company’s production certainly is a triple threat. Valenta can drum and sing simultaneously, which is no easy task. Amy Steele is a gifted violinist and vocalist, while Nees’ ability to play guitar, bass, ukulele and the squeezebox is impressive.

Dustin Valenta, Mallory NeesBut is this good theatre? The music is catchy and reminiscent of artists like Ben Folds. The humor is bland, but it has its moments. The problem is the story. How can you have a good play without a compelling story? Striking 12‘s plot feels like an afterthought, as if the writers tried to squeeze elements of story into the piece after the music had been completed. By the play’s end, you have a few songs stuck in your head but not much else.

Additionally, the BoHo Theatre’s space doesn’t have the acoustics for a show like this. Vocals are easily overpowered by the thumps of a bass drum or even the singing of violin strings. The audio quality is akin to a basement rock show. The piece would be better served in a more spacious venue where the band doesn’t almost sit on top of the audience.

If you’re in the mood for a holiday-themed rock show, Striking 12 is a decent watch. But if you’re looking for good theatre, you’re striking out.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Mallory Nees, Eric Loughlin, Amy Steele, Dustin Valenta

  
  

  
  

REVIEW: The Better Doctor (Silent Theater Company)

Multi-talented performers struggle to find show’s unique voice

 

better-doctor-8

    
Bootstraps Comedy Theater, in association with Silent Theatre presents
   
 
The Better Doctor
  
written and directed by Matt Lyle
at
Prop Thtr, 3504 N. Elston (map)
through June 26th  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

Silent Theater Company’s gimmick is what it sounds like: theatre in the style of old silent movies. It opens the door for some awesome physical performances and it even creates a template by which to tell topical stories in a universal way. Such is the case with The Better Doctor, Matt Lyle’s new play about sick, broke kids and the heroic tramp Velma (Kim Lyle), who is dedicated to finding them healthcare.

better-doctor-3 The show begins when the musicians take the stage.  Eric Loughlin on piano and Chris Jett on percussion sit on either side of the stage, bookending the action. The show does not lack energy, or innovation. Matt Lyle, who also directs, comes up with authentic and entertaining bits. Old-fashioned showmanship takes over as the performers charm the audience with sleight of hand tricks and big, blown-out characters.

The plot is simple, campy and a direct throwback to the simplistic storylines that showcased the comedic genius of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton, but with a new, political twist. There are ways in which the live-action adaptation of the stylized, antiquated form of silent movie performance works very well. The exaggerated physicality is extremely theatrical, and evokes the feeling of a classic mime routine. The performers take on the athletic challenge with aplomb and grace. Heather Forsythe, who is well utilized for a supporting player demonstrates a knack for physical comedy, and graces the stage with a youthful sass. Her performance, while presentational as her fellow actors, betrays the hint of grounded humanity that made Buster Keaton a true comedic master. The same can be said for lead actor Samuel Zelitch, who’s bumbling medical intern character is straight from the classics.

Kim Lyle’s performance is plucky and confident, and it’s nice to see a woman hero in this context. As Velma, she uses her brawn and wit to find medical care for the three sick little scamps, joining forces with a Buster Keaton-ish intern. The trap and the stone-face team up to fight the powers that be, in this case the wicked Chief of Medicine, played by actor/improviser Mike Brunlieb. The play unfolds in an episodic manor, similar to the silent films that inspired it. Although the scenes progress to create a fluid piece, this is better-doctor-5secondary; each scene’s primary purpose is to open the door for comedy bits.

Around three quarters of the way through, The Better Doctor begins to lag.  During the big chase scene, which gets off to a funny, if precious, start, ends up spiraling down a dark road. As the chase dissolves into a keystone cops parody, the The Better Doctor becomes a show that relies too heavily on a clever premise, without taking ownership of itself. The Better Doctor, while paying faithful homage to the silent greats, has too weak a grasp on its own voice. A silent play that is too stylistically referential, The Better Doctor is to be cutesy at times, and gimmicky at it’s worst.  Bootstraps Comedy Theater needs to revisit this play, and cultivate what is universally true about this show. A little more honesty, and The Better Doctor could be a four star show.

  
   
Rating: ★★½
 
 

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