Review: The Rainmaker (The James Downing Theatre)

  
  

An uneven portrayal of Classic Americana

  
  

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The James Downing Theatre presents
   
The Rainmaker
  
Written by N. Richard Nash
Directed by Floyd A. May
at The John Waldron Arts Center, 6740 N. Oliphant (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $5-$20  |  more info 

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There’s so much to both love and be disappointed in James Downing Theatre’s revival of N. Richard Nash’s The Rainmaker. Director Floyd A. May’s set design (co-designed with Joshua Dlouhy) is crammed with authentic props that create a truthful tone for a hearty Depression Era melodrama. Unfortunately, the set is just too jumbled and cramped to accommodate the play’s scenes, from the Curry family home, to the sheriff’s office, to the barn where the visiting Rainmaker, Bill Starbuck (Michael Rashid) stays the night. May’s direction also varies over the course of the play, from flat and pedestrian to vivid, exciting, touching and inspiring. Watching this Rainmaker is like taking a journey down a bumpy country road. One is sure to hit dull and dusty pockets. But turn the bend and, suddenly, the beauty of Nash’s morality tale about retaining faith while never eschewing plain reality zooms into full view.

Rainmaker34bH.C. Curry (in a warm and gracious performance by David Kravitz) is the play’s gentle, wise, observant patriarch, seeing his farm and family through the worst drought in years. They suffer from a drought of the spirit as well as the parched land their livelihood depends on and Lizzie (Liz Hoffman), his unmarriageable daughter, stands as its quintessential symbol.

Intelligent, industrious, and truthful to a fault, Lizzie can’t get a man–if getting a man means surrendering her brain and playing a vacuous, empty-headed flirt. Hoffman has regaled Chicago audiences with her portrayal of Lala in Last Night of Ballyhoo and even put sublime silliness into her shlock comedy role as Vicki in The Well of Horniness. Here, however, her performance starts and stalls in authentically portraying a 1930s woman whose primary goal in life is to fall in love, get married and have a family; whose biggest fear is that her plain looks and plain talk with men will keep her from those goals. Nash’s writing never strays from traditional gender roles and perhaps now they seem too staid and unyielding to seem credible. But they were once fiercely imbedded in American culture. The terror of becoming an old maid once had, not just emotional consequences, but also social and economic ones. A consistent, fully embodied Lizzie still requires total investment in that old-school frame of mind.

Even though the play focuses on the Curry family’s attempts to find Lizzie a man, it’s just as much about how its men respond to the vicissitudes of love and relationship. As File, Shannon Parr brings every ounce of proud, stoic testosterone to the loner deputy that H.C. and his sons, Noah (Michael Mejia) and Jim (Micah Fortenberry), pursue for Lizzie’s prospective mate. But he’s just as much an emblem for how masculine pride can get in the way of love. Jim, on the other hand, has no problem finding love, regardless of how his brother Noah disparages his affair with Snookie, a local country hottie. Mejia has no problem pulling off Noah’s hardnosed approach to life but could use a little more nuance to prevent his character from devolving into caricature. Fortenberry, on the other hand, resiliently displays all Jim’s turns of exuberance, joy and playfulness, counterbalanced with his confusion, frustration, dismay and exasperation over Noah’s disapproval of him.

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That leaves Bill Starbuck, the wild-eyed dreamer who throws everything into temporary chaos. Much as I wanted to buy into Rashid’s presentation of Starbuck in miracle worker/con man mode, much of this aspect of his performance just didn’t read. Selling the Curry family on the notion that he can bring rain is too forced. Instead, Rashid is far more powerful in Starbuck’s toned down, intimate moments connecting with Lizzie. In fact, their barn scene together is pure tenderness. Just as tender is H.C. trying to tell Noah why Lizzie must have her moment with Starbuck. If there’s one truly transgressive moment in The Rainmaker, it’s that one.

Unevenness hampers James Downing Theatre’s production, but the show is not without intense moments of beauty, humor and humanity. It even throws in a little excitement with an excellently choreographed fight scene. Now if only it could be pulled together in one vibrant whole. Certainly the promise is there.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

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REVIEW: Epic Proportions (Project 891 Theatre)

Shortness on vaudevillian style slows down “Epic Proportions”

 Cole Simon, Anna Shutz, 3

Project 891 Theatre presents:

 

Epic Proportions

by Larry Cohen and David Crane
directed by Ron Popp
at Chemically Imbalanced Theatre, 1420 W. Irving Park
through March 28th (more info | tickets)

review by Paige Listerud

I once looked down on broad physical comedy. Absorbed by witty dialogue and high concept situations, I relegated trips, pratfalls, and near misses to comedy for the lower orders. That alone makes me a bigger ass than any of the actors that manfully, enthusiastically sport their way through Beau Forbes’ fight choreography in Epic Proportions, Project 891’s latest production at Chemically Imbalanced Theatre. Physical comedy, perfectly timed and emotionally truthful, is like ballet—an athletic challenge that looks deceptively easy.

Anna Shutz, Cole Simon 2 The athletic end of acting has waned with the advance of modern theater, a loss that shows most when well-trained actors take on physically demanding comic roles. Today, the art and craft of physical comedy seems the province of specialists, dropped from the average actor’s repertoire like a hot potato.

Too bad. With the exception of the physical stuff, Ron Popp has assembled an excellent cast, with each actor fit perfectly to type. Benny Bennett (Matt Lozano) is a likable star-struck schlub, beginning his film career as an extra in, “Exuent Omnes”, a movie helmed by the egomaniacal director D. W. DeWitt (Robert Kearcher). Benny’s brother, Phil (Cole Simon), an all-around American boy-next-door, comes to collect Benny to take him home to the farm. But, since it is the Depression, and since extras get a dollar a day plus free meals, and since the last truck has left all 3400 cast members stranded in the desert—per Mr. DeWitt’s orders—Phil stays to become party to the madness of a runaway, overproduced picture that sees no end in sight.

As for “Exuent Omnes”, think “The Ten Commandments” meets “Ben Hur”, meets “Quo Vadis”, meets every other B-list sword and sandal epic. Both brothers fall for pert, cheerful Louise Goldman (Anna Schutz), assistant director to the extras, whose job of dividing the extras into ‘slave group” or “orgy scene group” already sets brother against brother. Add an assistant to Mr. DeWitt (Matt Allis) with the demeanor of a shark and a lesbian costume designer (Liz Hoffman) lusting after Louise and you have plenty here to entertain beyond the sturm und drang of jumbled comic fight scenes.

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Obviously, the production strives to be consciously overwrought, in stylized parody of Cecille B. Demille films. Some moments are more successful than others. Tommy Culhane’s deliciously bug-eyed gaze and overarching gestures set the right tone for pronouncements about the glory of Rome. Hoffman’s sassy Queen of the Nile and voracious Continental lesbian are treats. If only Popp’s direction didn’t deprive her of a few critical comic moments. Gary Murphy’s Demille-like voice-overs, as well as the cast of the mockumentary that first introduces Exuent Omnes–Kate Konopasek, Floyd A. May, Manny Schenk and Larry Teagarden–round out the manic film enthusiasm for a fictitious cult classic.

The cast certainly exhibits all the exuberance typical of a 1930s comedy. However, the craft that is the legacy of vaudeville and screwball films needs to be tightened up for the sake of a fully realized work. Who knew silliness could be so complicated? Who knew everything old would be new, and necessary, again?

Rating: ★★½

 

Matt Lozano and Cole Simon

EXTRA CREDIT: