Review: Stage Kiss (Goodman Theatre)

     
     

Cheap laughs mark time in Ruhl’s surface-skimming romantic fantasy

     
     

HE (Mark L. Montgomery) and SHE (Jenny Bacon) get lost in one another’s embrace as they perform as Johnny Lowell and Ada Wilcox in One Last Kiss -- the play-within-the-play.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

  
Goodman Theatre presents
  
     
Stage Kiss
    
   
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Jessica Thebus
at Goodman’s Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $17-$69   |  more info

Reviewed by Dan Jakes

Goodman Theatre and Sarah Ruhl have shared a fruitful relationship dating back to her 2006 The Clean House. Stage Kiss marks the MacArthur Fellowship winning playwright’s third production and first commission with the company, and with that, it may be time for Ruhl to reevaluate the details of that partnership. A two-year development process has yielded thin, runny results.

SHE’s daughter, Angela (Sarah Tolan-Mee), arrives at Laurie (Erica Elam)’s apartment to take her mother home.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)“What happens when lovers share a stage kiss…or actors share a real one?” Worthy question. Ruhl is a capable author to study it, too, having asserted her lyrical style and poignant insight into her characters’ romantic needs in previous, stronger works. This new play’s premise gets short shrift to accommodate Noises Off!-type metatheatrical slapstick silliness. If only Ruhl or director Jessica Thebus were more dedicated to exploring their substantial central theme, we’d be provided a better answer than ‘they fall down and go oomph.’

They also apparently seek refuge by escaping their own play, addressing the audience directly through occasional poetic spurts and barely integrated speeches. Stage Kiss’ most thoughtful moments are presented less as theater and more like essays. The nameless protagonist’s (Jenny Bacon) daughter (Sarah Tolan-Mee) ponders aloud why talented actors don’t seem to frown upon sleeping with talentless ones while, on the other hand, good painters seldom seem to sleep with bad painters. Elsewhere, a character articulates the difference between watching sex on film and sex on stage. Those interesting ideas are well phrased, but they come from Ruhl, not her characters. Action is totally halted during the speeches–just show us. Don’t tell.

     
Johnny Lowell (Mark L. Montgomery) meets Millicent (Erica Elam) in a scene from One Last Kiss.  (Photo: Liz Lauren) (l to r) Ada Wilcox (Jenny Bacon) and her Husband (Scott Jaeck) realize their daughter (Sarah Tolan-Mee) has run away with Johnny Lowell (Mark L. Montgomery) in a scene from One Last Kiss. (Photo: Liz Lauren)
(l to r) HE (Mark L. Montgomery), Laurie (Erica Elam), SHE (Jenny Bacon) and Harrison (Scott Jaeck) dance with one another to the tune of “Some Enchanted Evening.”  (Photo: Liz Lauren) (clockwise l to r) The cast of One Last Kiss (Jeffrey Carlson, Erica Elam, Sarah Tolan-Mee, Scott Jaeck, Jenny Bacon and Mark L. Montgomery) sits around the table as the director (Ross Lehman) speaks to them at first rehearsal.  (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Most of the two and half hours are instead spent satirizing the rehearsal process of a 1930’s Noël Coward-style play revival in which the married woman has been cast opposite her ex-lover (Mark L. Montgomery). The play-within-a-play jokes are decent enough, sometimes original and funny (“Why is everyone in this play named Millicent?”), but mostly easy and worn-thin. Ross Lehman is underplayed and hilarious as the production’s passive director, the all-too-familiar type that masks incompetence with friendliness. Pretending to be a bad actor is akin to pretending to be drunk; resisting temptations to exaggerate is probably for the best. The otherwise gifted Jeffrey Carlson does not and goes for broke as a gay, (potentially mentally disabled?) barely functioning bit-actor.

Decency doesn’t carry a show–once the novelty of the physical humor and accent-play wears off, there’s little else fleshed out to justify ludicrous character twists or the underdeveloped concept. Had Ruhl lived up to her potential and played to her strengths, she could have touched on some provocative ideas. Stage Kiss draws too thick of a line between romance and comedy for either to flourish.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

(center) Laurie (Erica Elam) confronts (l to r) HE (Mark L. Montgomery) and SHE (Jenny Bacon) as SHE’s daughter Angela (Sarah Tolan-Mee) and husband Harrison (Scott Jaeck) look on. (Photo: Liz Lauren)

Stage Kiss runs approximately two hours, 15 minutes, with a 15-minute intermission.

     

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Review: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (Court Theatre)

     
     

Ruhl’s ‘Orlando’: A decent romp

     
     

Amy J. Carle as Orlando (Michael Brosilow).

  
Court Theatre presents
  
Virginia Woolf’s Orlando
  
Adapted by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Jessica Thebus
at Court Theatre, 5535 S. Ellis (map)
through April 10  | tickets: $10-$60  | more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, with a protagonist that flips sexes and a narrative that slithers through time and space, is required reading for any student of women in literature. The genre-twisting novel, a thinly-veiled biography of Woolf’s sometimes-lover Vita Sackville-West, is Woolf’s most accessible and popular book. The light tone and fantastical story make Orlando ripe for the stage; however, putting the broad and populous novel on stage requires an innovative touch. The Court Theatre put the task of writing a stage adaptation in the very capable hands of Sarah Ruhl. To direct, they snapped up Jessica Thebus, always full of fascinating theatrics.

Kevin Douglas, Amy J. Carle, Erica Elam, and Lawrence Grimm (Michael Brosilow).The end product has six actors, loads of quick scenes, heavily-thematic design, and a tendency to stuff the audience full with exposition.

The plot spans 500 years, from the rule of Queen Elizabeth to today. Orlando (the ever-energized Amy J. Carle) is a young and restless poet, looking to write an ode to an oak tree but never finding the right verses. His shapely legs and youthful vigor catch the eye of the Queen (Lawrence Grimm, part of a four-man chorus that plays a galaxy of roles), who brings the kid into her court. There Orlando falls for Sasha (Erica Elam), who is visiting England with the Russian embassy. She departs for Moscow, and Orlando is restless once again. He travels the world, only to awake one morning in Constantinople to find that he has transformed into a woman. She then must navigate the new social implications and a whole new set of suitors. Along with the switch in gender, Orlando also must deal with living for hundreds of years and her ever-pressing need to finish her poem.

Ruhl and Thebus use plenty of theatrical magic to sail Orlando’s story. The stage is nearly bare for most of the time, allowing for quick transitions from place to place and time to time. Collette Pollard’s set contains many tricks; for example, a rolling bed becomes both a ship and a chrysalis for Orlando’s transformation. Linda Roethke’s monochrome costumes evolve with the time periods, but also play with gender roles. The four male chorus members begin the show strapped up in corsets, and there isn’t a real effort to hide Carle’s gender. It’s intriguing to watch Orlando go from loose trousers and vests to frilly, voluminous dresses.

Ruhl’s adaptation has a bad case of telling rather than showing. The characters often narrate to the audience about feelings, as well as discuss where the story is traveling. Much of this direct address is full of Ruhl’s trademarked lyricism, but it still leaves one yearning for more dramatization. It seems she unable to exactly figure out how to put Woolf’s tale up, so she uses the direct address as a crutch.

Ruhl’s adaptation is also hampered by a lowered stakes in the second half. The first act – which showcases Orlando’s romances with the Queen and Sasha – builds until Orlando becomes a woman. After intermission, the play can’t quite find its footing again. The second act hurriedly leaps through centuries to reach a rather bland conclusion.

     
Amy J. Carle, Adrian Danzig, Thomas J. Cox, Kevin Douglas, and Lawrence Grimm (Michael Brosilow). Kevin Douglas (Michael Brosilow).
Kevin Douglas, Thomas J. Cox, and Adrian Danzig (Michael Brosilow). Adrian Danzig, Lawrence Grimm as Queen Elizabeth, Thomas J. Cox, and Amy J. Carle (Michael Brosilow).

The actors are all eager and willing. Carle never disappoints as Orlando, and she has a huge journey to take every night. Orlando starts as wide-eyed and lusty and ends as darkly meditative and matured over his 500 years; Carle can nail every aspect of the character. The four chorus members, Thomas J. Cox, Adrian Danzig, Kevin Douglas, and Grimm, make their constant character-swapping look easy. They carry the show, both literally and figuratively. Although not on-stage very much, Elam does decent work as Sasha, alternating between sexy and innocent.

Woolf claimed she started Orlando as a joke, a way to tease Vita. Ruhl’s adaptation captures this light mood, and Orlando’s prevalent attitude through the centuries seems to be “just go with it.” This tone and Thebus’ antics are sure to amuse and inspire, even if Ruhl’s writing gets a tad clunky.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
       
  

Orlando meets "The Great Queen" featuring Amy J. Carle as Orlando and Lawrence Grimm as Queen Elizabeth I:

 

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Review: Baby Wants Candy (Apollo Theater Chicago)

  
  

Celebrating 14th year in Chicago, “Baby” wants a little more finesse

  
  

Nathan Jansen, Brendan Dowling, Erica Elam, Nick Semar, Christy Bonstell, Zach Thompson, Ben McFadden, Chris Ditton, Kevin Florain, Sam Super - Baby Wants Candy - Apollo Theatre Chicago - Photo: Joanna Feldman.

  
Apollo Theater presents
   
Baby Wants Candy
   
Developed by Peter Gwinn, Al Samuels,
Stuart Ranson, Bob Kulhan and Don Bardwell
Written weekly by ‘Baby’ cast
at
Apollo Theatre, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
Open Run  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Oh, to have witnessed Baby Wants Candy at its Chicago inception 14 years ago – first performing at iO Theatre before, later, moving to the present Apollo mainstage. The brain-child of Peter Gwinn, Al Samuels, Stuart Ranson, Bob Kulhan and Don Bardwell, Baby Wants Candy’s central premise is this: the troupe improvises a new musical every performance, created from a title shouted out from the audience. The tactic had its formulas, but each evening the actors spontaneously crafted and performed a new one-hour long musical, never to be seen again. Previously performed musicals include: Peace Corps: the Musical, The Day the Gingers Ruled the World: the Musical, David Hasselhoff’s Secret Children: the Musical, and The Department of Redundancy Department: the Musical.

Zach Thompson, Erica Elam, Christy Bonstell, Brendan Dowling, Sam Super, Kevin Florian, Ben McFadden, Chris Ditton, Nick Semar, Nathan Jansen - 'Baby Wants Candy'  - Photo credit: Joanna Feldman.On the evening I attended, one audience member beat everyone else to the punch by throwing out The Confessions of a Teenage Rahm Emmanuel. How something that biographical would have been handled by Baby’s original member Peter Gwinn is anyone’s guess. Unfortunately, the new cast seemed to be just finding their feet with Baby Wants Candy’s drill. They seemed constrained and hesitant. They pulled back from a full out rift on Emmanuel. The team fell back on teenage high school formulas and played it fairly safe with Emmanuel’s life story. Although they generated a few laughs in spoken scenes, they floundered on producing consistently distinctive or funny musical lyrics. Relax, guys, he’s not mayor yet and, besides, making up random and absurd shit about Rahm, of all people, is the essence of improv.

There were a few bright moments, though they largely centered on the teenage Rahm’s balls. Rahm’s dream of going from high school loser to prom king felt fairly predictable, yet it yielded a bit of fun in his algebra teacher’s encouragement to join ballet–“Ballet Will Give You Balls” being the one successful tune of the evening. From then on, the jokes were pretty much about Rahm’s balls. Rahm’s balls rule the school hallways. Rahm’s balls hijacked a car once. Rahm’s rival, Troy, attempts to cut off Rahm’s balls at high school prom but only manages to get his finger. Seldom did the cast attempt to venture out from the safety of ball jokes—like one student claiming baby wants candy logohis dad was a moon-ologist or the momentary inspiration of having Christopher Walken host Rahm’s prom.

Baby Wants Candy has made it big in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and with its international touring company in Singapore and at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland. Perhaps last weekend was just a little off with a new team. Then again, perhaps the franchise is showing quality control problems. Formulas may be necessary but an improv troupe has to have enough security with them so that it can take off to new horizons. For all the team’s struggles last weekend, the band held tight and ready under Ben McFadden’s direction. That remains the strongest element of performance—let’s hope it carries right on through to the rest of the cast every evening.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
      
     

Baby Wants Candy performs Fridays at 10:30pm on the Mainstage at the Apollo Theater, 2540 North Lincoln Ave. in Chicago.  Tickets are $15.  Student discounts are available with a valid student ID the day of the show only.  For tickets, call the Apollo Theater box office at 773-935-6100, Ticketmaster at 312-559-1212 or visit www.ticketmaster.com.  More info at BWC website.

  
  

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Review: Annoyance Theatre’s “Sodomites!”

Biblical madness paired with sardonic revelry makes for a musical of Biblical proportions

Christy Bonstell, Jim Fath, James Asmus, Mort Burke, Irene Marquette.  Photo credit: Sean Cusick

Right on the heels of Gay Pride Month, Annoyance Theatre puts up a raucous riff on the Biblical tale of Sodom and Gomorrah. Naturally, any theater with a full service bar and a long history of shock-theater doesn’t need to go further than gay jokes or fart jokes. But Sodomites! director Sean Cusick and his partners in crime, writer James Asmus and lyricist Mike Descoteaux, have crafted a sly dissection of the usual right-wing fundamentalism towards the Old Testament and set it all to music to make it go down with jovial ease. In this production, witty lyrics, anachronisms, and fast-paced lines critique our modern day culture wars—bringing this high-energy, lowbrow show dangerously close to satire.

Maybe Sean Cusick’s past holds the key to this blend of bawdy theology. He majored in philosophy and political science at Tufts University, and then went on to improvisation out of a need for an unrestricted outlet. “I had no discipline for acting. But I learned a lot from Second City about saying something while going for laughs.” It was James Asmus who called with the idea for the musical. “James, Mike, and I came up with the skeleton for the show over a few lunches. Mike knew all the Biblical verses by heart, so there was no need to explain to him what we were going for.”

James Asmus, Mort Burke. Photo credit: Sean Cusick You can still get drunk and watch the show, but it’s almost better if you don’t so that you won’t miss all the cunning details. The archangels Michael and Gabriel are ordered by God to seek out “one good man” from the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah or God will wreak destruction upon them. The trouble is that Michael and Gabriel are as jittery before God as overworked personal assistants to a fickle, spoiled CEO. While they are off on their mission, God will “bury some dinosaur bones to test peoples’ faith.” The angels describe the perils of their mission with “One Good Man.”

Upon landing in Sodom, they run into Lot, a raving, self-righteous homophobe who sees gay sex all around him. And he equates “gay sex” with everything, from bestiality to melon-ballers. “Our hero is as pure as his daughter’s labia majora,” sings the narrator. Isn’t that the truth, since Lot is more sexually obsessed than the deviants he condemns and one of daddy’s little girls seems rather eager to leave mom behind.

But bourgeois gay couples and liberal elites also get their come-uppance. A quick visit to Gomorrah reveals beautiful people so smug and fatuitous in their liberal haven, you long for them to be destroyed. Michael visits a gay couple who are both well meaning and self-absorbed. They take the angel for a mentally challenged homeless person until he downloads 1% of God’s consciousness into one of them. “You look like when we did coke,” his partner remarks as he comes out of it. Of course, it doesn’t help for them to learn that they will be destroyed for violating the laws of God that haven’t even been written yet. Even as Michael lets them preview an “advanced copy” of Leviticus, “Leviticus Rag” perfectly expresses their chagrin.

Irene Marquette, Christy Bonstell, Photo credit: Sean Cusick The highlight of the show occurs when God finally reveals himself, as a Morrissey character, singing, “This is God, Saying Sorry.” The true nature of the Old Testament God comes to light, as a capricious, arbitrary, and erratic personality; an awful power coupled to insecurity issues. Perhaps even the liberal religious may take offense, but the song is perfect piece for the production and explains a great deal about a god who “expects a lot.”

So, even once the angels have found one good man, Sodom and Gomorrah are destroyed anyway. The writers pull no punches in describing or commenting on the arbitrariness of that destruction: “Genocide is always someone else’s fault.” What more needs to be said about the human propensity to come up with any rationalization for the abuse of power, whether it be bombing cities or decimating populations?

The final act wherein Lot has sex with his daughters returns us to the ribaldry for which Annoyance is famous. It’s a telling moment when the angel Michael reassures Lot that, not to worry, the whole incident will be left out of the Koran. Nice to know that someone will do damage control, once the damage is all well and done.

Much praise goes to the well-coordinated cast, whose enthusiasm and energy are unflagging. Biblical madness should be paired sardonic revelry and earnest mania. It may be the only way for the human race to survive.

 

Rating: «««½

Sodomites!! A Musical of Biblical Proportions opens on June 19 during the Just For Laughs Festival and will show on Fridays at 8:00 PM through July 31. Tickets are $15 and can be purchased at the company’s website theannoyance.com, or by calling the box office: 773.561.HONK (4665). The Annoyance is located at 4830 N. Broadway, Chicago, Illinois 60640.

Cast list and bios after the jump

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