REVIEW: Hey! Dancin! (Factory Theatre)

Retro play satirizes modern celebrity

 

hey-dancin

 
Factory Theatre presents
 
Hey! Dancin’!
 
by Kirk Pynchon and Mike Beyer
directed by
Sarah Rose Graber
at
Prop Thtr, 3504 N. Elston (map)
through April 24th (more info)
 
reviewed by Keith Ecker 
 

In 1986, the same year that the Factory Theater’s new play Hey! Dancin’! takes place, I was 5 years old. But just because I was barely old enough to walk doesn’t mean I didn’t know how to dance. I fondly remember shaking it to Prince’s “Batdance” and jiving to the Pointer Sisters’ “Neutron Dance.” Yes, my memory is drenched with visions of DayGlo, high tops and sunglasses at night. The Chicago theatre scene seems to share the same penchant for the Reagan era, churning out no less than three 1980s-themed productions in the last month.

hey-dancin3 But whereas the other two plays—both stage versions of The Breakfast Club (here and here) —are adaptations of a popular movie, Hey! Dancin’! is wholly original. And although leading an audience into unknown territory comes with great risk, the entire cast and crew of Hey! Dancin’! executes the wonderfully written piece close to perfection. The end result is a stunningly entertaining play that evokes genuine laughs while offering insight into our modern perceptions of celebrity.

The play is about a fictitious popular cable access Chicago TV show called “Hey! Dancin’!” Think of it as a poor man’s American Bandstand but with much bigger hair and a much smaller audience. The protagonist, Halle (Melissa Nedell), and her sexually blossoming friend Trisha (Catherine Dughi), are obsessed with the show. The two teenagers squeal when their favorite cast members appear on screen, whom they know on a first-name basis.

“Hey! Dancin’!” is about to wrap up its TV season and the girls decide they desperately need to appear on air. Halle has an urge to meet teenage heartthrob Kenny Kapowski (Jacob A. Ware), who goes by the moniker K.K. Trisha has a much less innocent crush on the show’s older host Randy (Anthony Tournis), whose fashion sense is inspired by Miami Vice.

Meanwhile, the cable access network’s station manager Dennis Blackburn (Noah Simon) is getting phone calls from angry parents that the dance music on “Hey! Dancin’!” is upsettingly too “black.” Instead, he is being urged to play the top white hits of the day, Bon Jovi being the prime example. Randy is on the side of the kids and tries to put his foot down on changing the show’s format.

There is yet another plot line at work, one involving the aforementioned heartthrob K.K. and his on-air/off-air girlfriend Tanya Lacy (Aileen May). Tanya is a demanding diva who fancies herself as the star of “Hey! Dancin’!” She concocts a staged lover’s quarrel for the final show of the season, but her tyrannical attitude is a turnoff to K.K., who may just be looking elsewhere for love—or at least a little dry humping in the supply closet.

Hey! Dancin’! isn’t just a hair-brained ‘80s-inspired comedy. It’s also an effective satire on people’s perceptions of celebrity today. K.K. and his girlfriend Tanya see themselves as the center of the universe because they are on TV.—cable access—but TV nonetheless. Halle and Trisha give this notion weight since they are star-obsessed with these no-name nudniks. Yet as Halle gets to know the real K.K., who admittedly dreams of being famous without actually ever wanting to hone any real talent, the image of these backwoods celebrities begins to crumble.

hey-dancin2 hey-dancin3

Before seeing the play, I was afraid it would suffer from a few obvious pitfalls. First, the concept of a kid’s dance show where the music is “too black” closely parallels the plot of Hairspray. Fortunately, the writers, Kirk Pynchon and Mike Beyer, knew not to make this a central focus. Instead, the show’s possible demise hangs in the background, allowing the characters and their drama to take center stage.

In addition, a show set in 1986 could easily have been overburdened with cliché references. And although the play definitely capitalizes on ‘80s nostalgia, it refrains from being a staged version of VH1’s “I Love the ‘80s.”

The acting is brilliant. The comedic timing of most of the players is impeccable. I’ve seen countless improv, sketch and stand-up shows, and this rivals the best of them. Simon as the recovering alcoholic station manager is a scene-stealer with his Muppet-like voice and general awkwardness.

The show is an hour and 20 minutes long with no intermission, but you won’t be squirming in your seat thanks to Sarah Rose Graber’s directing. She makes sure the play moves along at a fast pace, only slowing down for scenes that demand extra attention, such as the aforementioned supply closet tryst.

Hate them or love them, the 80’s happened. And although that decade continues to be a pox on contemporary society (I’m looking at you MTV), the fact that we now have Hey! Dancin’! almost makes it all worth it.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Hey! Dancin’! continues through April 24th, performance on Fridays & Saturdays at 8pm ($20.00), and Sundays 7pm ($15.00). All performances at Prop Thtr, 3502 N. Elston Ave.

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REVIEW: “Bright Star: The Love Story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne”

A poetic play in a perfect setting

John & Fanny B

North Lakeside Players present:

Bright Star: The Love Story of John Keats and Fanny Brawne

Written and directed by Frank Farrell
at
North Lakeside Cultural Center in Edgewater.
Through Dec. 20 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Among the best things about Chicago’s theater scene are wonderful chances to see productions close-up in intimate and sometimes non-traditional settings. Such venues really bridge the gap between audiences and performers. As I overheard a woman say at North Lakeside Players’ charming world premiere, Bright Star: "I felt like I was part of the play."

The Players perform in the historic Gunder Mansion in Edgewater. Built in 1914, reportedly as the lakefront home of an early silent-movie mogul, the house was renovated and opened in 1989 as the North Lakeside Cultural Center.

mrs B & john john & fanny a 12.6.09

The building can accommodate more, but North Lakeside Players Artistic Director Frank Farrell prefers to limit audiences to 20, in part because he likes to stage scenes throughout the house, moving watchers from room to room. Farrell’s Bright Star shifts from the wood-paneled front parlor to the leaded-glass-flanked dining room to a second-floor bedroom, so viewers get something of a house tour along with the play. (Farrell is known for getting his audiences on the move. He’s also the man behind Theater-Hikes, performed during 2-mile walks, and a new project involving bicycle treks.)

North Lakeside Cultural Center forms an ideal setting for historical plays, like "Bright Star," which covers 1818 to 1821, the final years of the short life of British Romantic poet John Keats. Written in 2001, Farrell’s "Bright Star" is based on the 1968 historical novel of the same name by Joan Rees, which was in turn named for Keats’ sonnet, said to have written to his beloved, Fanny Brawne:

Bright star, would I were steadfast as thou art —
Not in lone splendor hung aloft the night
And watching, with eternal lids apart,
Like nature’s patient, sleepless Eremite,
The moving waters at their priestlike task
Of pure ablution round earth’s human shores,
Or gazing on the new soft-fallen mask
Of snow upon the mountains and the moors —
No — yet still steadfast, still unchangeable,
Pillow’d upon my fair love’s ripening breast,
To feel for ever its soft fall and swell,
Awake for ever in a sweet unrest,
Still, still to hear her tender-taken breath,
And so live ever — or else swoon to death.

—John Keats

You need not be a student of literature to appreciate this sad, true love story, also the subject of a recent film by Jane Campion. Keats, 23, and Brawne, 18, met in Hampstead in 1818, and gradually fell in love. Then, as now, life was not easy for self-employed writers — particularly unsuccessful, critically reviled poets — and the couple could not afford to marry. Both her people and his discouraged the relationship. Then, Keats’ health began to fail.

Playwright Farrell weaves wonderful lines, both his own and quotations from Keats, into a compact script. He pares the poetry to a minimum, keeping things moving — aJohn_Keats_by_William_Hiltonlthough I would gladly have heard more of Joe Ciresi’s beautifully expressive recitations.

Ciresi makes a handsome, very boyish Keats (though topped with a Struwwelpeter wig whose historical accuracy appears a little dubious). When it comes to dialogue, however, his performance sometimes seems too restrained.

Actor and script keep the love scenes decorous, as perhaps they really were. Yet surely the intense and stormy Keats who poured his heart into famous love letters with lines like, "Love is my religion — I could die for that — I could die for you" and "You must be mine to die upon the rack if I want you," should display more passion? We need some sizzle, especially between Keats and his darling.

Pretty Nicole Richwalsky brings the right coquettishness and emotion to the young and not very deep Fanny, while Christina Thodos plays her widowed mother with matter-of-fact briskness, delightful in scenes such as one quizzing the young poet on his prospects. Christina Irwin is nicely motherly as the busybody neighbor, Mrs. Dilke, and Michael Mercier doubles proficiently as Keats’ dying brother, Tom, and his friend Charles Brown. Frank R. Sjodin and Nada Latoya Steier capably play a variety of supporting roles.

The playwright knows his subject thoroughly, creating a few puzzles for audience members not so deeply grounded in Keats’ biography. For instance, there’s a rather mystifying scene with Mrs. Isabella Jones (Steier), who needs a better introduction (Keats may or may not have had an affair with her); and glancing references to bad reviews don’t adequately prepare us for an unneeded, anticlimactic monologue damning Keats’ literary critics for the poet’s death.

Quibbles aside, "Bright Star" is a lovely play in a lovely setting, well worth the modest ticket price.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

Note: The production is not wheelchair accessible. Paid parking is available across the street; parking passes must be reserved with tickets. Possible future performances may be in February. 

fanny & john bed Photos by Frank Farrell