Review: Sleeping with Straight Men (Ludicrous Theatre)

     
     

Uneven tone makes theatrical mess

     
     

Timothy Tintorini and Bob Skosky in Ludicrous Theatre's "Sleeping with Straight Men" by Ronnie Larsen.

  
Ludicrous Theatre presents
   
  
Sleeping with Straight Men
   
Written by Ronnie Larsen
Directed by Wayne Shaw
at Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through June 4th  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker 

Ludicrous Theatre doesn’t seem to understand what it has on its hand with Ronnie Larsen‘s Sleeping with Straight Men. The play, which tells a loosely dramatized version of real-life events, is all over the map. At times, it delights with John Waters odd-ball eccentricity. At other times, it has the weighty seriousness of a Greek tragedy. These unfortunate shifts in tone create a jarring experience that serve to remove the audience from the action of the play, dissolving any hope of immersion. Instead, we are treated to occasional vignettes of good theatre in the midst of a river of mediocrity.

Timothy Tintorini and Bob Skosky in Ludicrous Theatre's "Sleeping with Straight Men" by Ronnie Larsen.The play borrows heavily from the actual events of the infamous “Jenny Jones Show” tragedy of 1995. For those that don’t remember (or have tried hard to forget), Jenny Jones was a popular talk show host who held her own during the saturated television talk show market of the 1990s. As the pressure to win ratings escalated, these talk shows began to amp up their subject matter, exploiting their feeble-minded guests with little sympathy. Eventually, disaster struck. In 1995, openly gay guest Scott Amedure was murdered by straight neighbor Jonathan Schmitz after Amedure confessed in front of a studio audience that he had a crush on Schmitz. Schmitz was later convicted of second-degree murder.

In Sleeping with Straight Men, we meet Stanley (Timothy Tintorini), a small-town homosexual with big, vapid dreams of stardom. Confined to a small Michigan town with a miniscule dating pool, Stanley has made it a habit to seduce straight men. However, his loins get the best of him when he encounters Lee (Bob Skosky), a heterosexual waiter. The two have a brief interaction, which is enough to sweep Stanley off his feet. When he gets word that the Jill Johnson Show is producing a segment about secret crushes, he barely hesitates to call in and volunteer Lee and himself.

Meanwhile, we get a peak into Lee’s life. He not a very likeable individual and suffers quietly in a relationship that lacks any sign of love. Upon finding out from Jill Johnson’s producers that someone has a secret crush on him, he becomes immediately infatuated with the idea of meeting his crush, who he presumes is a woman. He packs his bags and heads out to the taping.

Lee is shocked and humiliated to find out that his secret crush is a man. He begs the producers of the Jill Johnson Show to not air the episode. Knowing they have an instant ratings boost on their hands, the slick-tongued producers do what they can to convince Lee otherwise. Stanley and Lee are then sent back to Michigan, where more secret scandal begins to unfold.

I think it’s telling that cult film star Mink Stole and drag queen Hedda Lettuce were cast in the off-Broadway premier of Sleeping with Straight Men. Obviously Larsen envisioned this show to be a kitschy over-the-top satire. And why not? The talk show circuit was a modern-day freak show.

But in the hands of director Wayne Shaw, the play is just too low-key. With the exception of Tintorini, who is delightfully campy, all performances are down-to-earth. That’s not to say these aren’t good actors. Skosky especially has a strong stage presence and a superb delivery. However, this play isn’t about realness. It’s dark comedy. And without that knowing wink, it’s just a sad tragedy.

Ludicrous Theatre’s production of Sleeping with Straight Men needs a directorial makeover. All the components are here for a good play. The actors can act. The script is solid. But the pieces just don’t add up to a successful comedy. If the director took some time to study the genre and even out the tone, he’d have a comedic hit.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Timothy Tintorini (Stanley) and Bob Skosky (Lee) in Ludicrous Theatre's "Sleeping with Straight Men" by Ronnie Larsen.

  

   

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REVIEW: Equus (Ludicrous Theatre)

Ludicrous horses around with modern classic

 

Eqqus - Ludicrous Theatre - poster

    
Ludicrous Theatre presents
   
Equus
   
Written by Peter Shaffer
Directed by
Wayne Shaw
at
Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through November 6th  |  tickets: $15   |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Probably my favorite aspect of Peter Shaffer’s 1976 psychological mindbender Equus is the hodgepodge of a religion he creates, one that cherry picks Christian themes and collides them with children books and commercial jingles. And horses, of course. Alan Strang, the head priest and sole member of Shaffer’s cult, creates a faith from everything that surrounds him. In particular, I love the word Alan gives the sacred riding bit, “chinkle-chankle,” and the devout seriousness in which he utters the babyish term. While usually goofy and occasionally unsettling, Alan’s horse-worship serves as a jumping-off point for a quest for spirituality in our modern world. After seeing any production of Equus, Shaffer’s views leave me rattled. Ludicrous Theatre’s production understands the play, but director Wayne Shaw is unable to effectively communicate the drama’s full power.

100_0604In a bold attempt to make the play seem more relevant, Ludicrous’ big “twist” on the script is changing Shaffer’s Southern English countryside setting to an area a few miles outside of Reno, Nevada. There’s at least one Sarah Palin t-shirt and several large belt buckles. The changes pretty much stop there. One wonders if Alan’s father Frank, who is described as “an old time socialist,” would be readily found in such an environment. In the end, the new take doesn’t really do much damage or enlightenment. Shaw and his cast have much bigger issues to worry about, anyway.

Buried in Ludicrous’ mission statement is the desire to explore the spiritual and the sexual on-stage. Equus provides plenty of fodder for both. I don’t know if I have every seen more balls on display for longer periods of time, and I’m not sure if I ever will. For most of the two-and-a-half hour piece, Justin Landry stands upstage completely naked besides a wire contraption shaped like a horse’s head. Shaw gets his Alan, Ian McCabe, nude as often as he possibly can. The nudity is interesting in certain respects (horses are naked, after all). It becomes over-the-top and cringe-worthy in several spots—especially when Alan is actively recounting his arousing experience riding Nugget (Landry). We end up with something that looks an awful lot like anal sex, but really awkward.

Staging in general is a weak point of Shaw’s. The production doesn’t really know how to handle the more abstract moments, such as when Alan recounts his first ride on a horse. A lot of the movement is unmotivated as well. There’s an old-time film noir feel to the acting—the cast pushes at the melodrama whenever they can, standing up just to sit back down, moving across the stage to signal distress or deep thought, etc.

 

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Kevin Heller is miscast as Dysart, Alan’s psychologist and spinner of this yarn. In voice and appearance Heller comes off as far too young. Conversely, McCabe comes off way too old. They change his age to 20 from the scripted 17, but this leads to more questions. Part of what makes Shaffer’s play so gripping is the fact that Alan is so young; place the character a few years older, and you wonder why no one found his antics strange, or how a kid who can barely read graduated high school.

There is a (most likely unintentional) brilliance in Heller’s casting. His Dysart is wooden, boring, and clinical. While not great acting, it brought to mind the thematic clash at the heart of the story, begrudging acceptance of mediocrity vs. explosive spiritual awakening.

This sort of accidental freshness pervades the whole production. The over-the-top style and uneven acting ability somehow still showcases the play, much more than the imposed alterations. McCabe manages to nail Alan’s flailing mysticism, a crucial requirement. This is by no means the definitive Equus (it’s not even the best storefront Equus this year—Red Twist had a much better handle), yet, at the end of the night, you will leave meditating on what divides the holy from the unholy in this world.

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
   

Ludicrous Theatre's Equus Cast

CAST: Kevin Heller as Martin Dysart, Ian McCabe as Alan Strang, Robert Dean Wells as Frank Strang, Elizabeth “Missy” Styles as Dora Strang, Suzanne Bracken as Hester Salomon, Kristen Bjorge as Jill Mason, Josh Becker as Harry Dalton, Justin Landry as Nugget and Amy Gray as Nurse.

       
       

Review: Apocalypso (Point of Contention Theatre)

Fractured tales of Armageddon

 

Apocalypso - Point of Contention Theatre

   
Point of Contention Theatre presents
   
Apocalyso
   
Written by William Donnelly
Directed by
Timothy Bambara
at Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through October 2nd   |  tickets: $10-$15   |  more info

Reviewed by K.D. Hopkins

It must be getting close to another pivotal prediction time in the history of humankind. Apocalypso is rife with hints of New Age philosophy, 20-something aimlessness, and Generation X hitting the wall. Yes, 2012 looms and there is hair in the Cocoa Puffs. I would not quite call this play by William Donnelly a comedy as it is billed. There are some funny lines but this is more of a post-millennial musing of the Absurd.

The Point of Contention Theatre Company is known for breakneck dialogue, seamless direction, and quirky expressionistic takes on reality. I have to say that Apocalypso doesn’t quite nail the mark as well as past works like The Wonder (our review ★★★½) or Vanishing Points. (our review ★★★)

To be clear, there are some fine performances in this play, but the action and the narrative don’t flow that well. Apocalypso is set during the holiday season between Christmas and New Years’ Eve in small town America. We are introduced to a washed up school janitor named Gus, getting hammered with a newly divorced Boone. Mike Rice and Zach Livingston play the roles respectively. They make fine work of portraying guys on a cheap beer bender in the Upper Peninsula. Gus stokes his drinking buddy with misogynistic remarks and manly feats of dog care while stealing none too bright Boone’s wallet. Catherina Kusch as Sherry the bartender is a standout. Kusch plays the part of a woman who accepts anything rather than being alone with a weary dignity and touch of fierceness. In the midst of the holiday binge, a derelict-looking woman appears, speaks of a message, then disappears.

Boone (Livingston) wakes up in the apartment of his friend Walt, played by Jared Nell. Mr. Livingston has a fine grasp of the broad comedy strokes of the sofa-surfing Boone who – wearing only boots, underwear and a torn bathrobe – is a site. Calling Oscar Madison!  Mr. Nell’s Walt is the unfortunate consumer of the hirsute breakfast cereal. Walt appears to be a pushover and if it quacks like a duck….you know the rest.

Into this fracas is thrown the characters of Boone’s manipulative ex-wife Gin (Heather Brodie), her ever accommodating sister Cal (Megan E. Brown), and her secretive husband Dwight, played by Tony Kaehny. I was left wondering how this could be called a comedy at all after watching the painful scene between the sisters Gin and Cal.

Gin cannot let go of Boone and calls him at ridiculous hours to request random objects like CD’s or small appliances. The sight of Walt sitting in a car holding a circa-70’s blender should have elicited a bigger laugh in my opinion. The humor was tempered by the looming angst that hangs in every scene of Apocalypso.  I should want to care about these characters but I cannot. They are so self-involved and oblivious to the meaning behind all of their existential spouting that I was hoping for an Armageddon full of endless Calypso dancing. In fact, the only character that brought levity and honesty to the play was Dora, played by Jennifer Betancourt. She appears like a vision to each character, speaking her message with evangelical zeal. Betancourt is wonderful as the possibly delusional Dora. She claims to be from the Council of Fate and Determination, sent to tell the world of the end times. Dora is darkly funny, as we all have seen someone like her on the train or a downtown street corner preaching in a filthy parka. The humor is this: perhaps they are right. They grasp onto just enough kernels of truth to make one wonder ‘what if?’ and then shake it off, inferring insanity on the messenger.

We discover that Dora is the sister of Walt and she warns him about the end of the world and the Cocoa Puffs. Walt explains that Dora is off of her meds and thought that she was indeed the Lamb of God as a child. Dora manages to inject honesty into these character’s lives by calling things as they are in the midst of listening to their mewling half steps toward honesty.

These people do not treat each other well, and normally that works as a dramatic device to push the action forward. In Apocalypso, the human cruelty just stalls the flow of the play. The marriage of Cal and Dwight is played like a soap opera with a plot of philandering and regret. By the time Cal is awakened by Dora and calls Dwight on his BS the only humor is found in an expletive and a demand for tea.

I have to say that I found Donnelly’s dialogue and theme oddly reminiscent of the novel “Nine Kinds of Naked” by Tony Vigorito. There is talk of tornadoes, allusions to synchronicity, and being reborn naked after the Rapture. Perhaps it is homage; perhaps it is a coincidence that I will allow as synchronicity.

The production’s performances are quite good. It is a disappointment, then, that the direction seems to pace the scenes in a fractured manner. Sometimes comedy is serious and sometimes it calls for broad strokes to elicit a knowing chuckle. This is a bit too serious where the material could be mined for more self-recognition. There should be at least a conga line.

   
  
Rating: ★★½
  
    

 Apocalypso runs through October 2nd at the Boho Theatre @ Heartland Studio. Times are Thursday through Saturday at 8:00pm and Sundays at 2:00pm. Contact www.pointofcontention.org for more information and tickets.

     
     

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