REVIEW: Seven Snakes (The Mammals)

 

No Country for Young Women—or Anyone Else

 

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The Mammals present
  
Seven Snakes
   
Written and Directed by Bob Fisher
at
Zoo Studio, 4001 N. Ravenswood (map)
thru Nov 6  |  suggested donation: $20 – BYOB  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

This past spring, under Bob Fisher’s deliciously skewed playwriting and direction, The Mammals really brought the excessive testosterone with their retro boxing melodrama, The Meatlocker (our review ★★★). They do no less with their current ode to spaghetti Westerns, Seven Snakes, staged in the dungeon-like confines of the Zoo Studio. While every line and gesture expresses sensual longing for the heyday of Eastwood films, Fisher sagely places Seven Snakes a full 30 dystopian years into the future. This is a desperate futuristic Western, playing off of nostalgia for rugged Seven Snakes - The Mammals - dont-want-to-be-coldblooded individualism and the joys of Manifest Destiny. Meanwhile, it cites those American cultural qualities as the source of our current military misadventures in the Gulf and Afghanistan.

Our story begins “in the remains of what was once the Arizona desert.” Heaven only knows where the rest of the USA has gone, but only two women and six Octogenarian Veterans of Foreign Desert Wars survive to live out dry days and lonely, love-starved nights in Skillet County. When The Mother, played in drag by Don Hall, gives up the ghost and leaves The Daughter (Erin Elizabeth Orr) to fend for herself as the solitary nurse at the VA, the elderly vets turn increasingly, dangerously frisky. Their sexual tension turns to outrage and suspicion when a wounded stranger arrives—a drifter who could be either a sexy, lone gunslinger or a terrorist out to destroy what’s left of America. Mother’s ghost returns both to spur on her Daughter and to comment on the action. But for the most part, girl is on her own with these crazy mens.

The real comic heroes of this play are the vets, led by the leadenly appropriate but no less sex-starved or suspicious Colonel (Matt Kahler). The action and humor grow decidedly freakier with the old boys’ growing frustrations. The further their young nurse progresses in her intimate relations with the Man (Roy Gonzalez), the more the vets believe he is one of a mythical terrorist team, the Seven Snakes.

Like most new works, Fisher’s comedy could use a strategic editing, but the lead-up to the second act is well worth the wait. The play achieves the surreal state of 60s Westerns, parodying and doing homage to them at the same time. The priceless comic timing of the Colonel, Radar (Ian Brown), Sgt. Ringo (Adam Dodds), Corporal Cheese Grits (Vincent Lacey), Private Toadsuck (Shane Michael Murphy) and Mr. Hey (Sean Ewert) make lines like, “So, what about that drifter’s penis?” and “That is the art of camouflage, girly” ring hysterically and resonantly funny.

 

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Completing the show’s testosterone is the rest of the Seven Snakes and the American Psychic Surveillance Team. As for the Snakes’ Segundo (Riso Straley), Chupa Fuerte (Bert Matias), Cuchillo (Miguel Nunez) and Angel (Fernando S. Albiar), these are men who have been fighting so long, their culture and history are as mythically-based as their reputation. Their roles don’t carry the comic impact of the Desert Wars Vets–happily, Matias plays his role as a “dirty-old-snake” to the goofy hilt. The rest of the Snakes are mournfully hip and fiercely outlaw–not to mention desperately needy for human touch. But one wonders if a little political correctness has crept into their character development. As for Agent V (Jim Hicks) and Agent Fido (Warwick Johnson), much as I appreciate how they represent the USA, their torture scene goes a little too long for either comedy or political commentary.

Since Erin Orr is the only player with XX chromosomes, one can only salute her no-holds-barred approach to keeping octogenarian lechers at bay, while struggling to get the young guys to open up emotionally. The former keeps the action going at a hilarious tilt, even as things turn dicey. Be prepared for fun stage violence and bloody bandages. Sadly, her romance with the Man drags. Their last crucial scene together doesn’t ring true. There still isn’t enough chemistry between them to sell lines like, “I don’t want to be cold-blooded anymore.” Seven Snakes is a man’s comedy and has to be appreciated as such. Still, even the Marx Brothers knew the importance of producing romance between their romantic leads, film after film. Besides, the world of the Seven Snakes could use a little tenderness. It helps to make the laughs complete.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
   
   

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REVIEW: The Better Doctor (Silent Theater Company)

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

 

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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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REVIEW: The (edward) Hopper Project (WNEP Theatre)

Though a brilliant concept, this project lacks dramatic arc

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WNEP Theater presents:

The (edward) Hopper Project

conceived by Jen Ellison
directed by Don Hall
thru February 21st at The Storefront Theatre 

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan 

There’s no doubt but that there are narrative riches embedded in the paintings of Edward Hopper. Gaze at them even momentarily and the stories take shape, treasures of the mind’s eye that form with the organic spontaneity only the most gifted artists can inspire. Hopper seems like a natural for translation from canvas to the stage; capture the silent depths within the deceptively simple angles and colors of “Early Sunday Morning,” “Room in New York,” “Office at Night” or “Nighthawks,” and you’ve got a piece of wonderful theater.

WNEP_TheHopperProject_01 With The (edward) Hopper Project, WNEP Theater tries to do just that with a production conceived by Jen Ellison as a writing exercise several years ago. The collaborative piece directed by Don Hall follows in the footsteps of similar endeavors – John Musto ’s 2007 opera, “Later the Same Evening,” used five Hopper paintings as his foundation. Donna McRae ’s 2005 film “The Usherette” spun a story from Hopper’s “New York Movie.”

WNEP puts a jazz score behind the paintings-brought-to-life, which reach a visual peak in the money shot that ends the piece by replicating one of Hopper’s most iconic images. That closer sends the audience out on a high note. Would that the roughly two hours leading up to it were as compelling.

The Hopper Project was written by Mary Jo Bolduc, Jen Ellison, Bob Fisher, Tom Flanigan, Don Hall, Merrie Greenfield, Joe Janes, Cholley Kuhaneck, and Rebecca Langguth; perhaps therein lies the core trouble. Playwriting by committee rarely results in a well-written play and for all its visual prowess, The Hopper Project is simply not well written. At the crux of the difficulty? A lack in both character development and connective tissue or dramatic arc among the characters. Watching the piece is akin to flicking through two hours of Network television, never stopping on the same channel for more than a few minutes. People and conversational fragments flit by in fits and starts, rattling about the surface without root or depth – and therefore without substance.

Where The Hopper Project differs from the mostly black hole of TV in its brilliant concept. But for all the gorgeous, provocative potential, that concept is done in by execution that’s far more meh than marvelous.

You’ll get no argument here that true wonders can come of making an audience wrestle with tantalizing loose ends and challenging ambiguity. Few things annoy us more than theater of the stupid – shows that condescend to hand-feed the audience every last detail while telegraphing precisely what the one should be feeling at any given moment. But The Hopper Project goes too far in the other direction. The stories play like unfinished two-dimensional sketches rather than textured, fully realized paintings. Context – both specific and universal – is minimal, and the result is something scattered and superficial rather than a united, meaningful whole.

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Overheard conversations one expects to take on deeper resonance never do, words and actions unfold more in vacuums than in fully realized world. And some things just don’t make any sense at all. As a movie theater audience slouches over popcorn (“New York Movie”), an usherette delivers a monologue to – the projector? Her sister? Herself? Why does the slapsticky, mugging business man (“Office at Night”) threaten to kill himself every day? What in the world is the deal with the man whose face burned off and why does he surface, face swathed in bandages, only during intermission? As a Phillip Marlowe wannabe rambles on about a pair of green shoes and (hello noir cliché) a jilted horn player, as a husband and wife bicker abrasively over the connotations of the word “clever,” as a pair of brunettes converse in fraught tones about a family drama, it becomes harder and harder to engage. It is indeed clever that the scenes copy paintings by Edward Hopper in a secular sort of Living Nativity pageant. But minus all-important context and characters, that cleverness takes on the feel of a gimmick.

Also troubling are the problematic sightlines presented by Heath Hays’ wide, shallow set. The construction is terrific in its boxy, two-story evocation of Hopper’s lines and shades. But if the view is obstructed, the artistry is wasted. From dead center in one of the best seats in the house, I couldn’t see any of the scenes that played on the far sides of the thing.

All that said, there are some winning performances in The Hopper Project. Dennis Frymire creates a largely silent cop whose workaday, shoe-leather weariness hasn’t extinguished an optimistic, romantic heart. Amanda Rountree is radiantly endearing as flirt whose winning smile is laced with the eminently relatable motivation of big city loneliness. If only they had more to work with.

Rating: ★★

 

“The (edward) Hopper Project” continues through Feb. 21 at the Chicago Department of Cultural Affairs’ Storefront Theater, 66 E. Randolph St. Tickets are $20, $15 students and seniors. For more information, go to www.dcatheater.org

The (edward) Hopper Project features Scott T. Barsotti, Mary Jo Bolduc, Regan Davis, Lauren Fisher, Dennis Frymire, Kevin Gladish, Lori Goss, Merrie Greenfield, Marsha Harman, Joe Janes, Andrew Jordan, Ian Knox. Patrick Kelly, Vinnie Lacey, Erin Orr, Amanda Rountree and Jacob A. Ware.

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