REVIEW: Closer (AstonRep Theatre)

  
  

Endless scene changes stifle strong ensemble work

  
  

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AstonRep Theatre Company presents
   
Closer
  
Written by Patrick Marber
Directed by Rob Cramer
at
Heartland Studio Theatre, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through March 5  |  tickets: $15  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Patrick Marber’s magnum opus Closer hits like a Classical tragedy with “Friends” era embellishment. Marber won a shelf-full of awards and recognition for the play, but has since gone on to craft such garbage as “The Tourist” screenplay. In 2004, he turned the play into a Julia Roberts/Jude Law vehicle and found raving mainstream audiences. Closer is now one of about five plays you’ll probably find on any given Borders’ drama section.

Despite the hype, the play packs a punch, drawing comparisons to Brits like Noel Coward and Harold Pinter. Unlike much of the schlock coming out of the late ‘90s/early aughts (Proof, anybody?), Marber writes harrowing thematic depth and dense, conflicted characters. The play does indeed feel like a period piece of the ‘90’s.

AstonRep Theatre Company’s mission is to bring theatre to non-theatre audiences, which perhaps explains choosing such a well-known piece for their second production. Snuggly fit in the BoHo space in Rogers Park, their production doesn’t seem to go anywhere conceptually. What saves the show from total destruction is Marber’s deft writing sensibilities and an incredibly talented cast.

Overall, the production feels like an acting class final. The talent on-stage contrasts starkly with the poor production values, creating a strange rift that never resolves.

The four-actor piece follows two men and two women over a few years. The characters meet, have sex, fall in love (or not), and inevitably break up and squash each others’ hearts, not always in that order. Dan (Ray Kasper), an obituary writer, meets Alice (newcomer Aja Wiltshire), an ex-stripper prone to falling in front of moving cars. As the months go on, Anna (Amy Kasper) and Larry (Robert Tobin) get thrown into the mix. Affairs spiral off in all sorts of directions, most end in emotional explosions. Then there is the making up, marriages, divorces, and long talks in strip clubs.

Ray Kasper, although too old for the part, works well against Wiltshire, easily the most charming member of the cast. Although he can’t nail Larry’s anger, Robert Tobin finds and plays up the humor. Amy Kasper makes bold choices from the beginning. The cast struggle with some of the weightier moments of the play, although they are always in sync with the dramatic arch of the piece.

Director Rob Cramer’s production is extremely hampered by amateurish stumbling blocks. The transitions are the most glaring issues, making a 90 minute script into well over 2 hours. There are twelve scenes in the play. Here, each transition is done in blackout, without any music, and without any creativity. The AstonRep gang forgets that this is all part of the show, too. Designer Lea Tobin’s set feels rushed and inadequate. We see all the wires, but we shouldn’t. I wish Cramer lessened everything and just focused on his cast. A simpler touch would make the show quicker, clearer, and more engaging.

I’ll be honest, considering the missteps, I thought this was going to be a groaner of a production. But the cast really pull the play together, forging the believably convoluted relationships that Marber requires. Even the scene where Dan and Larry interact in a sex chat room, for example, is hilariously crude yet Kasper and Tobin use it to reveal quite a lot about each character.

Marber’s writing dabbles a bit in romantic comedy, melodrama, and tragedy, but Closer defies any neat Hollywood genre placement. Unlike many writers of our time, he allows the story to drive itself in any direction it needs. The folks behind AstonRep understand this, but they aren’t able to articulate it.

  
   
Rating: ★★
  
  

Artists

 

CastAmy Kasper, Ray Kasper, Robert Tobin, and Aja Wiltshire.

Production: Rob Cramer (Director), Jeremiah Barr (Assistant Director), Samantha Barr (Lighting Design, Stage Manager) and Lea Tobin (Scenic Design, Graphic Designer).

  
  

Theater Thursday: Talk Radio (State Theatre at Heartland)

Theater Thursday

 

Thursday, July 29

Talk Radio   by Eric Bogosian

The State Theatre of Chicago at Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood Ave

talkradioVisit the Heartland Studio for a radical re-imagining of Eric Bogosian‘s Pulitzer-Prize nominated play, Talk Radio. Then stick around immediately following the performance for a discussion with the director, cast, and Artistic Director. Light refreshments and drinks will be provided. Talk radio host Barry Champlain is a relic of an analog age, on the verge of a deal for national syndication. Tonight, not only is he under assault from many callers-in, but he also has digital communication thrust upon him. Bogosian meets Orwell in this commentary on the media.

Show begins at 8 p.m.   Event begins immediately following the performance

Tickets: $20    For reservations visit www.statetheatrechicago.com.

   
   

Review: Boho Theatre’s “The Glorious Ones”

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Bohemian Theatre Ensemble presents:

The Glorious Ones

by Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens
directed by Stephen M. Genovese
thru November 21st  (buy tickets)

Reviewed by Aggie Hewitt

The Heartland Studio, home base for the Bohemian Theatre Ensemble (Boho), is one of the smallest black boxes I have ever been to in Chicago. As you walk in off the street, you find yourself inside a box office not much bigger than a phone booth.  Finding your seat in the theater is more like squeezing your way into a crowded elevator than getting ready to experience high art. And on Friday night, as the lights went down in that small, communal space, and the actors took to the stage to begin performing the regional premiere of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens’s glorious onesThe Glorious Ones it was the least lonely place in the world. What could be better, on a cold Chicago night, than to see a group of young, vibrant performers fill a small space with their white hot energy? This is a far from perfect production, but the dedication and energy of this vibrant cast is a treat.

Director/set designer Stephen M. Genovese has created a fine and audacious set; a blank old-world-looking wood stage dressed with simple red curtains and the occasional charmingly low tech surprise. It’s a set that screams, “Fill me! Bring the best you’ve got!” – and Mr. Genovese and his cast make a wholehearted attempt…and sometimes succeed.

The play is set in 16th century Venice, during the creation of Comedia del’ Arte. “The Glorious Ones” are a Comedia troupe, led by the pompous and egocentric Flaminio Scala (based on a real-life Comedia performer) played by Eric Damon Smith. The scenes of actual Comedia are great fun. One sketch is repeated three times, as a mapping device for what we know is going on behind the scenes. The best though, is “Armanda’s Tarantella,” slyly performed by the fearless Dana Tretta. Most of the large group scenes have merit. “Flaminio Scala’s Historical Journey to France” is a showstopper, and highlights the energy and force behind these performances that make this show worthwhile.

John Taflan, Katie Siri, Danni Smith, Eric Damon Smith, Dana Tretta, Tom Weber The thing the show is missing, and it is sorely missed, is honesty. The one-dimensional character of Flaminio Scala is prouder than proud and intensely serious. He speaks of his work with dignity and pride, and yet, seems to have no relationship with it. The man as a comedian is never explored, or even dignified with attention. In a pivotal scene, Flaminio embraces a struggling street performer (Courtney Crouse), after watching him perform, and takes him under his wing. Flaminio didactically spells out his lesson plan to build the young raw talent into his protégé. Here, Flaminio gets the opportunity to talk about his work; instead of reveling in it’s humor like a comedian, he discuses it with the wistful dreaminess of a school girl recanting her favorite lines from Twilight. Mr., Smith has the most stage time, and so bears the burden of being an example, but I assure you the lack of truth on stage was a cast-wide epidemic. From the audience, it seems that Mr. Genovese focused too intently on the larger than life aspects of the show and forgot that a show needs honesty to be relatable.

About two-thirds of the way through, Danni Smith as Coloumbina breaks the monotony of disconnected energy and hits one out of the park with “My Body Wasn’t Why,” an empowering and tear-jerking ballad about art, aging and womanhood.

Lynn Ahrens’s interesting book races through the first half of the show, asking the audience to simply accept the characters without working for it. In the second half of the show, when the action finally slows down, it is difficult to muster empathy for anyone.

The wonderful thing about it, though, is the subject matter. We are invited to experience the creation of Coloumbina, the sassy maid; Pantalone, the miserly old man; Dottore, the quack doctor, and Harlequin, the sly prankster, which is a real treat for a theater lover. Stephen Flaherty’s music is full-bodied and emotional, and paired with Lynn Ahrens’s lyrics makes for a great soundtrack. It is in this partnership that these two create strong work, but Lynn Ahrens’s book independently leaves much to be desired in terms of character development.

The thing you have to do to enjoy this show is to understand that it is not a musical comedy. It is a musical about comedy. But the entire cast invites you warmly into their view of history, and you get to see a neat, shiny version of the creation of an art form. If you are a comedy lover (who isn’t?) go see this show. It’s a musical about the creation of something really important, and it is worthy of your attention. For a theater lover, this production is a historical journey worth taking, even if there are a few unintended pratfalls along the way.

Rating: ★★★

Review: Point of Contention’s “The Wonder: A Woman Keeps a Secret”

Hilarity Truly Ensues in Point of Contention’s

“The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret”

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Point of Contention Theatre presents:

The Wonder: A Woman Keeps A Secret

by Susanna Centlivre
Directed by Margo Gray
Running thru August 26th (buy tickets)
Location: BoHo Theatre at Heartland Studio (map)

Review by Paige Listerud

This is what Chicago’s theater scene is all about: around a corner, in a little space one could easily pass by, a small theater company is doing great things. Director Margo Gray has assembled a lively and gifted cast for Point of Contention’s production of The Wonder: a Woman Keeps a Secret. This 18th century play by Susanna Centlivre, considered second only to Aphra Behn in her time, receives light and fast modern flare, while staying true to its ribald, audacious, and feminist origins. Step into that little black box–an evening of 295 year-old fun awaits you.

Set in colonial Brazil, the clever and virtuous Violante (Megan Faye Schutt) hides the daring Isabella (Lisa Siciliano) who has escaped from her father, Don Lopez (Jeff McLane), to keep from being married against her will for money and station. Trouble is, Violante is also in love with Isabella’s brother, Don Felix (Jason Nykiel). Every attempt to keep Isabella’s secret and help her on to true love puts Violante’s relationship with Don Felix in jeopardy. Her intrigues on Isabella’s behalf spark Don Felix’s suspicions, manly pride, and jealousy, and could ruin her own chances at happiness.

Of course, even given all the intrigues and mishaps between principle players, the bawdiest comedy comes from the servants; each player cast in these roles invests them with vigor, relish, and imagination. Ready for a three-way? Don Felix’s servant Lissardo (Justin Warren) certainly is–and attempts to negotiate between his dalliances with Isabella’s maid, Inis (Morgan Manasa) and Voilante’s maid, Flora (Hayley L. Rice). Warren skillfully wrings laughs out of every situation. Of course, he’s lucky; he has lines like, “Methinks I have a hankering kindness after the slut.” Drunken carousing with the Scotsman Gibby (Eric S. Prahl), servant to smooth Colonel Britton (Sean Patrick Ward), is a surefire way to pass the time while the girls’ tempers cool down.

Jeff McLane’s anxiety-ridden and compulsive Don Lopez is nothing short of hilarious. Point of Contention may want to put a ball and chain on him to keep him from getting away. Morgan Manasa does quadruple duty bringing bright, distinctive comic turns to each role she plays. Rice’s Flora is the perfect hearty, buxom foil to Schutt’s vivacious, intelligent Violante. The feminist moments of the play are enjoyable because the expressions of loyalty and boldness between women occur naturally within the context of the women’s choices.

As for the guys, where did POC find these smart, good-looking men—I mean, actors? Seriously, it’s impressive to see a work like this taken on and cast so evenly. Brett Lee’s Frederick is such a solidly good guy that one’s heart breaks in the end when he’s the only character who isn’t hooked up with anyone. Is it too late for a rewrite?

One soft spot remains, which could be worked out in the course of the run. In the second act, a relatively long scene between the two principle lovers, Don Lopez and Violante, shifts from romantic quarrel to reconciliation to comedic free-for-all over Felix’s reawakened suspicions. Schutt and Nykiel have not quite mastered the transitions between romantic moment and farce, which would be an essential skill for any 18th-century leading comic actor.

Special nods go to set design (Amanda Bobbitt and Allyson Baisden), lighting design (Brandon Boler), and costumes (Carrie Harden). This company follows the principle of doing a lot with a little. The ability to suggest colonial Brazil with precise touches and avoid drowning the cast in stuffy frippery must be commended.

Rating: «««½

BoHo Theatre holds free staged reading tonight of “101 Dates”

 

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Enjoy the reading of:

101 Dates
Written & Performed by David Rodgers Jr

June 1, 2009 7:30pm
Free Admission

BoHo Theatre @ Heartland Studio
7016 N. Glenwood Ave., Chicago, IL 60626

Tickets must be reserved ahead of time by emailing producers@101datessf.com.

101 Dates, a new comedy by Bay Area resident David Rodgers Jr, has had staged readings throughout Northern California, and continues the tour in Chicago and New York.  What started out as a journey to find love has turned into a two-and-a-half-year project in which David went on one hundred and one dates! He’s dated men, women, an ex-Catholic priest, and even a celebrity. 101 Dates is a satire of contemporary dating for all audiences, gay, straight…or whatever.
David recreates the best-of-the-best of the 101 men, women, men who used to be women, and women who used to be men he’s met in his quest for love.

The show features multi-media elements such as digital film segments, animation, and the spirited people of San Francisco sharing opinions of popular love songs, pick-up lines, and love. In addition to the show, a new website has been launched; www.101datessf.com where people can read David’s blog, share dating stories, and ask dating advice.


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Review: “The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)”

Screwball Fun from Genesis to The Last Supper

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

As evident by the enormous controversy triggered by Notre Dame selecting President Obama to speak at their commencement ceremony, the Judeo-Christian religious views that have shaped Western civilization for the past 2000 years are still very much a force in our lives. And like any institution that has been around for that long, the history, thought, and tradition of Judeo-Christianity are easy targets for parody. Ouroboros Theatre Company's 'The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged)' Ouroboros Theatre Company takes aim at Christianity’s holiest text and best-selling book in history, the Bible, in their production of The Bible: The Complete Word of God (abridged), originally created by the Reduced Shakespeare Company. Tucked away in the intimate Heartland studio theatre (map) in Rogers Park, the three person cast puts on a vaudevillian type show that blends jokes, audience participation, smatterings of improv, and plenty of Cubs references into a decently funny hour and a half journey through the Bible.

Just to be clear, this ain’t The Da Vinci Code. Nobody should expect to leave the show with a deeper grasp of the Holy Bible. The three performers, straight-man Chase McCurdy, childlike Michael Herschberg, and acerbic Lindsey Pearlman, guide and acknowledge the audience through their irreverent re-envisioning of the Bible. The play feels like an PG-13 episode of “Veggie Tales” combined with a vastly misinformed theology lecture; the actors address the audience in-between short vignettes. Director Ron Keaton ripened the Reduced Shakespeare Company’s script with nods to current events and local flavor. Some of these topical jokes fare well (Facebook, David Letterman, Blagojevich), while others fall flat (parking meters, Cranium, and far too many Chicago baseball jokes). Most of the humor actually isn’t contained in the text, but in the actors’ reactions to the fact that the comedy isn’t of the highest denomination. You can tell that everyone on stage is having a really good time, and their energy passes onto the audience well.

"The Bible" banner The problem with the show is that there are many unrealized conventions. The set is far too intricate for a play requiring barely any scenic elements at all. The centerpiece of the stage is a giant book plastered with the show’s title; I really wished the pages could’ve actually been turned, Monty Python and the Holy Grail-style. Instead, the production relies on what seems like an endless supply of props, including a reproduction of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper with the faces cut out, a Rastafarian wig, and fish puppets. Fortunately for everyone involved, the props are used well and the show never strays into lame Carrot Top territory. Some opportunities are missed—while discussing the Resurrection of the Lord, Chase appears in an Easter Bunny costume, but the real comedy comes from the fact that the costume is split down the back to fit the corpulent actor. But he never shows off his backside, throwing away a great potential joke. Another underused asset is musical director Joanna Lind, who is perched with her keyboard above the action on a rock. Dressed in an angel costume, she provides the music and is occasionally engaged by the other actors as a divine authority figure. Although her playing abilities are fine, her character is never fully realized, which feels like another missed opportunity for the production. The trio also has a few timing and delivery issues, but they rapidly fire joke after joke so the duds don’t derail the production. With a little less focus on over-rehearsed bits and a little more freedom and improvisation, this show could’ve been even funnier.

The Super Soaker was invented by Lonnie Johnson, now of Johnson Research Group. It is clear that the goal of this production is to have fun, and it definitely succeeds (how could one go wrong with Supersoakers?). If you are in the mood for a screwball approach to the most influential book in the history of the world, Ouroboros Theatre serves it up with plenty of gags, goofy props, and pokes at the Book of Job.

Rating: ««½

Now playing at:

BoHo Theatre at Heartland Studio Theatre
7016 N. Glenwood Ave.  (map)
Chicago, IL 60626
773-791-2393

Ouroboros Theatre Company
http://www.ouroborostheatre.com
When: May 28 : 8 p.m.
Sundays and Saturdays : 2 p.m. (ends June 7)
Fridays and Saturdays : 8 p.m. (ends June 7)

Price:  $20

Ouroboros Theatre Company’s mission and info after the fold.

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Three Shows – One Street! Don’t miss out!

Rogers Park Theater Renaissance

By Venus Zarris

When you think of Chicago Theater your first thoughts might go to The Loop. Between The Goodman Theatre on Dearborn and the big commercial venues that produce the Broadway in Chicago product, the other options can get easily lost. Little to no advertising money makes it impossible for them to compete for visibility but that doesn’t mean that their efforts are any less impressive or important.

There is theater being produced all around the city and suburbs, some streets even have a couple options within walking distance but Rogers Park is exploding with outstanding work. Earlier this summer The Side Project saw a production of Sweet Confinement by a new company called SiNNERMAN Ensemble. They formed after training together at the School at Steppenwolf and the fledgling company created bold, provocative, glaringly intimate and urgently powerful theater in a tiny black box.

Keep an eye on this exciting new company and the other eclectic offerings at The Side Project at 1439 W. Jarvis Ave. (map).

Now Showing On Glenwood!!!

Within about a three block radius on North Glenwood, just off the Red Line Train Morse stop, there are three plays by three very different and very impressive companies.

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The Mark Of Zorro

Seldom do you ride a continual and exhilarating wave of energetic entertainment during an entire production but Lifeline Theatre’s world premier adaptation of The Mark of Zorro delivers a tsunami of charming delight!

"Mark of Zorro" at the award-winning Lifeline Theatre This show has everything going for it, both creatively and technically, but the two elements that keep rising to the surface are the unbridled humor and the flawlessly swashbuckling fight scenes. It is always a treat to go to a comedy and giggle but it is an unexpected pleasure to go to an adventure tale and squeal with laughter.

Just when you have caught your breath from the whimsical comedy you are swept away by the exciting swordplay. Normally even the best staged fight scenes tend to break the suspension of disbelief. They look telegraphed, rehearsed and contrived. But Geoff Coates’s gifted and dazzling fight choreography delivers the most believable and invigorating swordplay that I have ever seen on stage, and he does it with a large cast in a relatively small space! Long hours of rehearsal dedicated exclusively to the fight scenes pay of in terms of childlike thrills for the audience. WARNING TO THE FRONT ROW: You might just soil yourselves because the action is so close and so real!

If you are looking for exciting exploits, dastardly villains and a handsome, lovable, laughable hero, run to see The Mark of Zorro!

Rating: ««««

(“The Mark of Zorro” extended through July 20 at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood. 773-761-4477.)

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Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers Of The Night

Theater is a pretty remarkable proposition. A group of people from varied backgrounds and disciplines come together with a unified goal of presenting a piece of work. One might think that this is a recipe for chaos, and sometimes that is the case. But miraculously it is often the ingredients for something entertaining and or evocative. Occasionally it transcends the normal conventions and expectations and the synchronicity of creation lends itself to something exceptionally compelling. It taps a vein of emotions in a way that is rare and unique. This is the case with Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers Of The Night, produced by the award-winning theatre company Theo Ubique.

JacqueBrel You enter the wonderfully quaint little venue of No Exit Café, far north of the hustle and bustle of the Loop and nestled next to the Red Line elevated train tracks, and are relocated to another time and another place. But the time and place are more so the setting of altered emotions and atmosphere, rather than a specific location. You are transported to comradery, inebriation, celebration, passion, longing, betrayal, loss, and melancholy.

Director Fred Anzevino and his eloquent company create a rare gift to the audience and an exceptional contribution to the exclusive theatrical choices that Chicago has to offer. Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers Of The Night is a lovely homage to Brel’s talent and the perfect vehicle for Theo Ubique’s incomparable imagination.

Rating: ««««

(“Jacques Brel’s Lonesome Losers Of The Night “ extended through August 30 at No Exit Café, 6970 N. Glenwood Ave. 773-743-3355.)

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Questa

People’s Theater of Chicago delivers a solid Midwest Premiere of  Questa, by “NYPD Blue” writer Victor Bumbalo. The urban landscape is simply and immediately rendered by Patricia Perez’s exceptional mural design, starkly yet warmly depicting a skyline in ruins, and also by James Scalfani’s explosive interior cityscape design of color on black box walls, creating an homage to the vibrancy of New York with a black light painting on black velvet effect. The contrast of vitality and desolation evokes the city’s heartbeat as well as the contrasting emotions in the lives of Bumbalo’s characters before the play even begins. Annah Zaman’s subtly lovely original music infuses the production with an appropriately overwhelming melancholy.

questa Director Madrid St. Angelo works wonders with his resources. He creates as much honesty and consistency as possible with an uneven cast and an overly ambitions script. Shaun F. Conway, as Nicholas, and Cliff London, as Daniel, deliver the productions most believable and emotionally realized performances.

The convoluted script is thought provoking, albeit not completely engaging, and the overall production proves to be a strong effort by an up-and-coming company with plenty of dedication, talent and potential.

Rating: ««

(“Questa” runs through July 19 at The Heartland Studio Theatre, 7016 North Glenwood Ave. 773-371-1868.)