Review: American Theatre Company’s “Yeast Nation”

 A Mucking Good Time

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American Theatre Company presents:

Yeast Nation

by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann
directed by PJ Paparelli
runs through October 18th (ticket info)

reviewed by Timothy McGuire

Yeast Nation is an innovative musical production unlike anything I have ever seen before. Greg Kotis (a veteran of Chicago’s Neo-Futurists) and Mark Hollmann (a veteran of Chicago Theatre Building’s Musical Theatre Workshop), the same creators of the Tony-winning musical Urinetown, tell a provocative story about the creation of life based on an absurd premise of single celled yeasts living in a primordial soup. There are no  stories of life before these yeasts; these yeasts are the beginning of time.

yeast-nation-3These vocally gifted yeasts are living under the dictatorial rule of the Elder (Joseph Anthony Foronda), he being the yeast that produced all other yeasts. They are starving yet the Elder forbids them to rise to the top where plenty of nourishing food is available. The Elder believes that his oppression is for the good of all yeasts and life as a whole. He even kills a yeast (Sweet yeast’s father) for disobeying him and eating from the top of the liquid surroundings. The Elder’s son Second (Andrew Keltz), the second in command, sees no sense in his fathers orders. He ventures off to discover and take advantage of all the wonderful things available near the top, such as delicious fulfilling muck. He promises Sweet (the name of the sweet yeast) a new world, not knowing what lies ahead. Second’s engulfment of muck results in the birth of a fantastic pink creature (Stephanie Kim), sparking the beginning of the progress to a new multi-celled organism.

Do not be alarmed if none of this makes any sense – the creators were aware of their own craziness in the foundation of their story and the even more incredible plot. In the beginning I was getting a little nervous as I had no idea what was going on, and then the scary-eyed grey-haired yeast (Barbara Robertson) poked fun at how weird it is to believe in a story about yeasts. Throughout the play the creators slide in small little jokes recognizing the lack of believability and completely insane premise of a society of single-celled yeasts. This is theatre, not school. Have some fun with it.

Each scene is filled with graphic sexual innuendos hidden in Kotis and Hollmann’s brilliant writing. Though tempted to share with you some of these tastefully shocking lines, I would not want to ruin the experience of the live delivery. Considering the depth of this unordinary script and lyrics, I am looking forward to discovering the jokes that were intelligently hidden beyond my comprehension the first time seeing the performance.

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There is no distinct set on stage. The scenery is composed of purple lights hanging from the ceiling and rafters creating Disney-like prehistoric stars. The stage is cluttered with scaffolds and equipment displaying the result of a Broadway-style performance being compressed into the small storefront space of American Theatre Co. This design allows for the yeasts to utilize a variety of heights and abstract placements on the stage, providing the sense of a large production cramming itself into the small set.

The lighting and special effects add the change in atmosphere to each various style of song. The musical variety in this bizarre tale includes a little bit of everything. The style of each song had its own vibe from a tune sang at a church choir, downtown disco, a rock concert, Christian rock, Gospel, rock video and more. I am pretty sure they did a parody of Meatloaf’s music video for “I Would Do Anything for Love.”

Before I even had an idea of what was going on in the plot, I already felt I was watching the beginning of a spectacular new musical. The confusion is part of the fun. The costumes were a little hokey, but the quality of talent on stage combined with the unique incomparable writing by Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann is a combination for success. Go see the birth of the next hit musical that you cannot believe someone could imagine to produce.

Rating: «««½ 

Playing at American Theatre Company, 1909 W. Byron, Chicago, IL, Thursdays & Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays, through October 18, 2009.

 

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Review: Resonants’ “The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus”

The Resonants Exhibit the Pageantry of Hell in “The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus”

The Resonants have overreached themselves with this production of The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus, by Christopher Marlowe.  Director Dan Krall has a special affection for the material, yet he possesses too little directorial experience and too young and raw of a cast to pull off Elizabethan drama. Many of the actors fail to project and articulate their parts. Some changes between scenes are too rudimentarily staged to provide a cohesive arc to the production. Thankfully, a few bright embers shine out.

faustus press picClaire Alden has the strength of stage presence to pull off her cool, jaded, and sagacious Mephistopheles. Galen Murphy-Hoffman delivers an equally sleek and menacing Lucifer, and is great fun, both as the Emperor, with his George W. Bush impression, and a bumbling Pope. Both Avery Armour and Atra Asdou form a charmingly convincing con-artist team as Wagner and Valdes. Nathan Hicks has delightful moments as Robin the Clown. One can only wonder what further comedy improv training could elicit, both for him and for all of Faustus’ comedic moments.

Special mention should be made of the set design, which, despite a kind of spare industrial 80s flavor, still manages to evoke malevolent grandeur through the use of floor-to-ceiling black drapes precisely accented with large red tasseled cords. Even the red-light cross, hung upon the right wall, suggests a presence of evil rather than a source of spiritual comfort on stage.

If anything, it’s the visual storytelling of the production that succeeds in expressing the Elizabethan penchant for pageantry as part of stagecraft. The most evocative moment comes at the end, when the cast executes the horror of Dr. Faustus being dragged down into Hell with all its dark magnificence.

What is most sorely lacking is a strong lead. Nate Burger’s Dr. Faustus is a geeky academic, dipping his toe into monumental choices he can barely realize the ramifications of, until it is too late. He hardly seems the Renaissance ideal of a master of knowledge, which was the hallmark of the age. It is not quite clear that this is a dramatic choice rather than an actor simply struggling to the fill out the part.

Burger’s struggles are just one sign of a production that is out of its depth. This may be the moment that a young company needs to reassess its strengths and its deficiencies, in order to put on works that serve to expand its capabilities. There is enough promise here to encourage such an effort.

Rating: «

The Tragedy of Doctor Faustus
City Lit Theater
1020 W. Bryn Mawr

Runs thought July 12th
Price:$10-$15
for tickets, call886-811-4111
www.theresonants.org