Review: The Servant of Two Masters (Piccolo Theatre)

  
  

Piccolo keeps tradition alive and lively

  
  

Servant 300x250

   
Piccolo Theatre presents
  
The Servant of Two Masters
  
Written by Carlo Goldoni
Directed by
John Szostek
at
Evanston Arts Depot, 600 Main Street (map)
through April 9  | 
tickets: $25  | more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

There’s something refreshing about returning to good, old, broad physical comedy and farce. No jaded irony or hipster coolness impedes its sheer enjoyment; mad-dash energy and pure silliness carries the story along to its positive, if predictable, end. Piccolo Theatre does The Servant of Two Masters the old-style way, with all the Arlecchinotraditional bells and whistles. Take that literally, since benches line the wooden stage, loaded with noisemakers to amplify exaggerated gestures, body movement and wild slapstick typical of commedia dell’arte.

Under the tight direction of John Szostek, Piccolo is determined to give audiences as authentic and bawdy an old-world experience as possible, contrasting charming Italian song from the elegant innamorati (lovers) with the bawdy songs and acrobatic comedy of Truffaldino (Omen Sade). The entire cast acquits their roles with energetic teamwork and enthusiasm, which includes a certain improvisation with Carlo Goldoni’s text. Yet, none are put to the test like Sade–his put upon, wily servant is basically a non-stop cartoon through two vigorous acts. If there is anything to appreciate about Piccolo’s production, it’s the marathon of physical action the players go through for the audience’s enjoyment.

Pantalone (Kevin Lucero Less) is about to marry off his daughter Clarice (Deborah Craft) to Silvio (Glenn Proud), the foppish son of Dottore Lombardi (Joel Thompson). But Truffaldino arrives to interrupt their engagement with news that his master, and Clarice’s original betrothed, waits downstairs. Actually, it is really Beatrice (Denita Linnertz) in men’s dress impersonating her brother, who was betrothed to Clarice before he lost his life in a duel with Beatrice’s lover, Florindo (Tommy Venuti). ArlecchinoDisguised, Beatrice simply hopes to complete a business transaction with Pantalone so that she can use the money to find and assist her lover, who fled after the duel. Cross dressing is only one of the delights of The Servant of Two Masters; mistaken identity galore drives most of the plot as Truffaldino signs on to serving none other than—guess who–Florindo when he arrives in town.

Piccolo’s production exults in these old formulas and executes them with verve. Szotsek has obviously encouraged a take-no-prisoners approach to the playing out the various dinner service sketches, swordfights (fight choreography David W. M. Kelch), and a boffo, knock-down-drag-out wrestling match between Pantalone and the Dottore. However, the production delivers charm as well as energy. The simple pleasure of buffoonery – that is the hearty spectacle that Piccolo achieves in its economically tiny space. In doing so, they enliven a great tradition for future audiences.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

 

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REVIEW: Robin Hood: The Panto! (Piccolo Theatre)

  
  

Raucous humor amidst the Dark Forest

  
  

piccolo theatre, robin hood, 2010, Fairy (Vanessa Hughes), Robin Hood (Berner Taylor), Fairy (Amy Gorelow), Bess Flatbottom (Andrew Roberts)

  
Piccolo Theatre presents
   
Robin Hood: The Panto!
   
Written by Jessica Puller
Music by Tyler Beattie
Directed by Glenn Proud & Brianna Sloane
at Evanston Arts Depot, 600 Main (map)
through Dec 18  | 
tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

You’ve got to hand it to Piccolo Theatre for perennially bringing a bit of wacky English theater tradition to Evanston environs each holiday season. British Pantos are pure, unadulterated silliness. At Robin Hood: The Panto!, expect all the traditional British ribaldry—cheering the hero, booing the villain, and shouting, “He’s behind you!” when our hero is under sneak attack. The real fun of the show is witnessing full-on participation from a typically polite and respectful theater crowd.

Bess Flatbottom (Andrew Roberts) and Robin Hood (Berner Taylor)Oh—and the Dame (Andrew Roberts)—did I forget to mention that one must whistle and hoot every entrance made by the Dame? Shame on me! Whistle the Dame, everyone, or be known as real drag.

Co-directed by Glenn Proud and Brianna Sloane, Robin Hood: The Panto! is the newly-minted creation of young playwright Jessica Puller, who authored their successful last year’s panto, Perseus and Medusa: or It’s All Greek To Me (our review ★★★). You’d better not expect something like the Ridley Scott or Kevin Reynolds’ versions of the Robin Hood legend—Puller takes a nice big swipe at those.

No, in this version, Robin Hood (Berner Taylor) looks hot in fishnets but has a head the size of a watermelon from all the hero worship he gets from fans and the media. An eager overreacher, Scarlet (Nicole Keating) just wants to be part of Robin’s Merry Men but Robin, Little John (Adam McLeavey) and Alan A Dale (Maxx Miller) never cut her the slack to let her join. Of course, it’s tough when one is constantly outshone and out-thieved by Philip, the Cow (Vanessa Hughes and Amy Gorelow). Rescuing the lovely Maid Marian (Kaitlin Chin) from the deliciously sinister and effete Sir Guy of Gisbourne (Ben Muller) is a weekly event, but this time a trek to The Dark Forest leads Scarlet to discover a magic spell book by which she can rewrite events as she wills.

Piccolo’s production shamelessly rips off “I Love Lucy” and every other old vaudeville bit and joke. When I say old, friends, I mean that, no doubt, many of these jokes and shticks were unearthed from the catacombs. But the cast excels at driving a sassy pace and playing every moment with gusto. What is even more important is the spot-on improvisation and interaction with the audience that they deliver. On opening night, an audience member trying to sneak back into her seat after intermission was greeted with a scathing “Nice of you to join us!” from Sir Guy. But our plucky audience gave as well as they got. Once the Sheriff of Nottingham (Vic May) got turned into a duck from Scarlet’s magic spell book, someone from the audience yelled out “AFLAC!”

The Fairies (Vanessa Hughes and Amy Gorelow) piccolo theatre, robin hood, 2010, Fairy (Vanessa Hughes), Robin Hood (Berner Taylor), Fairy (Amy Gorelow), Bess Flatbottom (Andrew Roberts) Robin Hood (Berner Taylor)

Other memorable moments include Noah Ginex’s magic scene and puppetry design, as well as Vanessa Hughes and Amy Gorelow playing the evil spirits of the Dark Forest, busting out a power ballad just like the 1980’s duo, Heart. But the show really is about the pact between audience and players to have a ridiculous, raucous good time. To that end, bring your friends and family. And watch out for the whipped cream.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Fairy (Amy Gorelow)

     
     

REVIEW: Low Pay? No Pay! (Piccolo Theatre)

The workers’ sweet revenge

 Piccolo Theatre of Evanston - Low Pay, No Pay 001

   
Piccolo Theatre presents
  
Low Pay? No Pay!
  
Written by Dario Fo
Directed by John Szostek
at Evanston Arts Depot, 600 Main, Evanston (map)
through October 23  |  tickets: $15-$25 |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

This may be the worst of all possible times to be a banker, broker, or “master of the universe.” Masters of disaster, more like it, since the economic crisis has revealed as never before what a house of cards our financial system has been, what a gambling den deregulation has turned the stock market into, and furthermore, what a perfidious and ineffectual democracy we have in its wake. Into the fray comes Piccolo Theatre with its ribald production of Low Pay? No Pay!, a slapstick comedy by Italian playwright and Nobel Prize winner Dario Fo. Be prepared for Italian socialism on the rocks. Director John Szostek and cast certainly rock it till it pops.

Of course, if you’re a Tea Partier or Rush Limbaugh or you still think that unregulated capitalism is the only cure for what ails us, this may not be your kind of comedy. No, it’s a play for taxpayers looking for a little comic revenge against the capitalist system, even if they’re not so sure about the alternatives. Come one, come all! –to Dario Fo’s manic festival of jibes against financial shell games, irresponsible political parties, battling ideologies and the hysterically desperate tactics of the working poor trying to survive. Oh, and let’s not leave out slams against religion.

Low Pay Don't PayAntonia (Brianna Sloane) and Margherita (Amy Gorelow) return home to Antonia’s apartment, laden with groceries. Antonia has just stolen them in a shoppers’ rebellion from the local supermarket. Prices have escalated to twice as high as in the last month and the working class Italian housewives aren’t taking it anymore.

Since a riot has broken out and Antonia and Margherita have gotten away with some of the booty, Antonia has to hide her stash before her law-and-order working class husband, Giovanni (Ken Raabe), gets home. Margherita stuffs her share of food under her coat, creating an all-too-noticeable bump that Giovanni can’t help but notice when he comes home. Antonia lies to her husband, telling him that Margherita is pregnant. But Giovanni cannot understand why his friend and co-worker Luigi (Glenn Proud), who is also Margherita’s husband, would not tell him about the coming baby. Antonia covers further, by saying that Margherita has been hiding the pregnancy from Luigi.

And so it goes. The lies build up, both on Antonia and Giovanni’s part, and the hilarity ensues over characters trying to maintain them. Old formulas, tried and true–but, still, congratulations to Szostek’s well-honed cast. Prepare to see pairings as classic as Lucy and Ethel, Rickie and Fred or, for the guys, Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton. In American terms, Low Pay? No Pay! is “I Love Lucy” meets “The Honeymooners” meets Inspector Clouseau—only this Inspector (David W.M. Kelch) is Italian, is a bit quick with the handcuffs and his mustache keeps falling off.

Low Pay Don't Pay Low Pay Don't Pay

Ken Raabe reprises his role as Giovanni from Piccolo’s inaugural production. His confidence and expertise with the role shines through. Amy Gorelow’s frustrated and run-around Margherita is a delightful, sweet gal pal to Sloane’s chatty and devious Antonia. Kelch does yeoman-like work in four different roles—my favorites were his Undertaker and Old Man. Proud’s performance as Luigi is as nice a prole as they come. Joel Thompson brings up the rear with his turn as the Inspector’s assistant police officer; only his comic timing could use some refining. Thank goodness he really sells the officer coming out of the closet. Goofy, good-natured fun is the key to Szostek’s direction. As much as upper class institutions and their political lackeys get their comeuppance, the whole cast keeps the comedy light, silly and fast-paced.

Lucky for them, the playwright allows changes in his material in order to keep up with our current events. Only the play’s ending doesn’t translate so well from its Italian origins. That’s because Italy’s social and political reality is not ours; its modern cultural creations could never be an easy fit for Americans who don’t know their history. All the same, these last 10 minutes are more than forgivable for a full two-hours of comic revenge. Piccolo’s revival is well worth that.

   
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

 Low Pay Don't Pay

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REVIEW: Lower Debt (Livewire Chicago Theatre)

Down in the dumps..

Lower Debt_photo by Sebastian Aguirre_7

Livewire Chicago presents:

Lower Debt

 

written by Joshua Aaron Weinstein
directed by
Rebekah Scallet
at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western Ave.
through April 4th
(more info)

by Keith Ecker 

As has been pointed out by many smarter than me, it is worse to be the recipient of apathy than the target of hatred. That said, I don’t hate LiveWire Chicago Theatre’s  world premier production of Lower Debt. No, instead I just couldn’t care less about it, Lower Debt_photo by Sebastian Aguirre_5and it appeared that neither did anyone in the play. And this is supposed to be an “Everyman” tale?

The play’s got a solid synopsis. I’ll give it that. It’s set in the beginning of the 21st century, resembling a time that is as economically uncertain as present day but personal suffering is considerably worse, where a house is a tent tucked away in an abandoned building. CW (Brian P. Cicirello) is a copywriter at an ad firm. As we learn through video flashbacks, CW is laid off and left to simultaneously sell a screenplay and beg for change on the street, which we see in a scene where CW rambles to himself about pennies and dimes. The clip is so pregnant with self-importance I found myself rolling my eyes at the screen.

Eventually CW appears on stage in the tent town that nomadic bums Claude (Malcolm Callan), his wife Val (Melissa diLeonardo) and her sister Wendell (Annie Rix) have established. Claude is a bossy, hot-headed man who is protective of his property. He’s not hesitant to hit or push CW, which he does frequently. Meanwhile, Wendell takes a liking to CW, a feeling that is reciprocated. We know this because CW tells Wendell in hushed whispers that she doesn’t have to stay in Claude’s compound. It is a cliché love.

The tent town is also inhabited by a pill-pushing self-described pharmacist named Ames (Tamara Anderson), a kind-hearted cab driver named Rash (Josh Johnson), his dying lover Leah (Miriam Reuter) and a bum (Noah Lepawsky) whose periodic slips into existential ponderings are about as deep as Jack Handy’s “Deep Thoughts”.

Nothing much really happens throughout the play. A lot of people look angry at one another and walk from tent to tent. Alcohol is drunk. People occasionally leave the compound and then come back. Near the end of the play, there’s a twist, one that will jerk you awake because it involves a gun. But don’t get too excited. It’s laughably convoluted.

There’s little to no characterization. We as the audience don’t get to know any of these people. When some die, we just kind of shrug it off. Sure, there’s plenty of exposition about what life used to be like and who we all used to be before things went to hell. But it’s all talk and no action.

Lower Debt_photo by Sebastian Aguirre_2 Lower Debt_LiveWire_1
Lower Debt_photo by Sebastian Aguirre_6 Lower Debt_photo by Sebastian Aguirre_3

Speaking of talk, the dialogue in Lower Debt is atrocious. It plays like a transcribed conversation between high school stoners. The playwright, Joshua Aaron Weinstein (aka LiveWire’s Executive Director), obviously wants to tackle some big-picture concepts, but needs to learn to do it with more finesse. You can discuss life, death, society and materialism in a play, but you have to find some way to interweave it into interesting characters and plot. Otherwise it just sits there for everyone to stare at like a pet stain.

With no characterization and clunky speech, it is difficult to place much blame on the actors for their lackluster performances. They aren’t bad – just flat. Glenn Proud stands out the most as Claude’s cop brother, Damon, probably because he’s one of the only characters who doesn’t talk like a freshman philosophy major.

The use of video, which is completely dropped in the second half of the play, serves little purpose. The clips provide flashback about CW, but a clever director could just as easily stage these scenes with much greater effect. Also, the audio on the video is too low. Though sitting in the front row, I still had a very difficult time hearing. Hopefully this is just a technical sound issue with an easy fix.

Lower Debt is meant to be a commentary on contemporary times, exploring themes of community, ownership, loss and hope. But without interesting characters or a solid story to ground these lofty topics, the picture gets fuzzy and the audience’s attention spans and patience are tested.

 

Rating:

 

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Review: Piccolo Theatre’s “Perseus and Medusa: Or it’s all Greek to me!”

Children’s play best-suited for adult audience.

Perseus and Medusa: or it's all greek to me! 

Piccolo Theatre presents:

Perseus and Medusa: Or it’s all Greek to me!

by Jessica Puller
directed by Glenn Proud and Brianna Sloane
thru December 19th (ticket info)

reviewed by Keith Ecker

Piccolo Theatre’s new holiday panto, Perseus and Medusa: Or it’s all Greek to me!, is a hilarious parody of the well-known Greek myth about a young, boyish hero who must slay the vile Medusa out of a sense of duty. The slapstick-filled production plays like a bawdy cabaret, with sexual innuendo and gender-bending peppering the piece. Adults will definitely get a kick out of the humor, which includes a character whose name sounds like a part of the female Perseus and Medusa: or it's all greek to me!anatomy. However, much to their dismay, their children may also get a kick out of these same antics, which often are too low-flying to be over even an 8-year-old’s head.

This isn’t to say there is something negative about the baseness of the humor of the play. The original script, written by Northwestern alumni Jessica Puller, is self aware enough to make both the blue humor and the eye-roll-inducing puns entertaining. Its brashness itself is a joke, almost nudging the audience as if to say, “Can you believe we just said that?” This is especially true in a moment where the Dame, a clownish character played by a cross-dressing Andrew Roberts, is collecting dragon snot in a bucket with the plan to sell it as a face cream. Once a bucket is full, she remarks, “It would take me a month to fill that myself.” Although children might not understand, the adult’s in the audience know, we have ceased discussing dragon snot.

And although the piece really is a vehicle for a string of off-color jokes, there is a plot. The liberal retelling centers on Perseus (played by female ensemble member Liz Larsen-Silva), a young boy who just wants to fish. The center of town is the bait shop/hair salon, run by juvenile Linus (Dominic Furry) and Evander (Maxx Miller). The evil king (Vic May) and his daughter Andromeda (Laura Taylor) enter the picture, and, upon first sight, Perseus falls for the princess. In an effort to win her heart and at the request of the King, Perseus sets out to collect the head of Medusa, the mythical villainess whose mere glance turns men into stone.

Perseus and Medusa: or it's all greek to me! Perseus and Medusa: or it's all greek to me! Perseus and Medusa: or it's all greek to me!

From here the play becomes a journey story, with Perseus and his band of comical misfits overcoming challenge after challenge. The Greek god Hermes (ensemble member Leeann Zahrt) makes an appearance to assist the hero, and even the magical horse Pegasus has a cameo. Characters directly address the audience at times, and audience members are encouraged to actively cheer for the good guys and boo for the villains. There are a few song and dance numbers throughout, including a loungey, seductive tune by the voluptuous Danae (ensemble member Vanessa Hughes), who could be at home on top of a piano

The play is separated by an intermission, with the first half dragging on longer than necessary. But overall the script’s pacing is good, though it might cause younger children to squirm in their seats.

The acting is solid, with no weak links in the cast. Roberts delivered a stand-out performance in his role as the clownish Dame. His fluctuating falsetto and wild hand gestures were belly-achingly funny throughout.

Ensemble members Glenn Proud and Brianna Sloane shared directing duties, balancing the cast of more than a dozen so that the production never felt cluttered. Their talents really shine in the fight sequence between Hermes and the villainess Nestor (ensemble member Deborah Craft), which is a well-orchestrated example of stage combat and puppetry.

Perseus and Medusa is a fun, fanciful play, but be warned: this children’s theater production might be a little too risqué for its intended audience.

 

Rating: ★★★