Review: Wonders Never Cease (Provision Theater)

  
  

Broad brush strokes make paradoxical play

  
  

Wonders Never Cease - Provision Theater - poster

  
Provision Theater presents
   
Wonders Never Cease
  
Adapted and Directed by Tim Gregory
Based on the book by Tim Downs
at Provision Theater, 1001 W. Roosevelt Rd. (map)
through June 5  |  tickets: $25-$28  |  more info 

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

Provision TheaterCompany‘s world premier production of Wonders Never Cease has all the trappings of a wacky children’s comedy. Think “Miracle on 34th Street” meets “3 Ninjas”. Its overly simplistic portrayal of religion, faith, people, relationships, right and wrong makes it easy to follow but hard to stomach. Jokes arise out of tired premises, while characters are pulled from the archetype bargain bin. And the ending is so saccharine sweet, it will make your stomach turn.

Caroline Heffernan as Leah - Provision TheaterProvision is known for its religious-themed plays. Its mission is to produce works of "hope, reconciliation and redemption." Wonders Never Cease is no exception. It attempts to dramatically answer the question, "Do angels really exist?" Unfortunately, the sophomoric manner in which it illustrates this theme is so simplistic it’s insulting. It doesn’t matter if you’re a believer or not. The surface-level treatment this weighty topic is given is sadly laughable. By painting with such broad brush strokes, playwright Tim Gregory (who adapted and directed the play and serves as the company’s artistic director) inadvertently creates a number of paradoxes that muddle the meaning and erode the play’s potential.

Wonders Never Cease centers on Leah (the very talented and young Caroline Heffernan), a little girl who claims to have seen an angel on the side of the road. Those close to her are skeptical of her visions, including her mother (Katherine Banks), her mother’s boyfriend (Ryan Kitley) and her teacher (Matt Klingler). Leah’s bizarre visions raise eyebrows, and soon the school is recommending a complete evaluation.

Meanwhile, the boyfriend, Kemp, works as a nurse who isn’t afraid to overstep his authority. When he is assigned to care for a comatose female celebrity (Holly Bittinger), he devises a moneymaking opportunity. This is good news for him, considering he owes big bucks to an East Coast loan shark (Sean Bolger). Kemp, the loan shark, the celebrity’s agent (JoBe Cerny) and a book publisher (Michael Wollner) conspire to fool the celebrity by implanting her with a false religious vision. The plan is that when she eventually comes to, she’ll confuse the ruse for reality and write a best-selling novel. I don’t want to spoil it, but, suffice to say, things go awry.

Despite its weaknesses, the play has several strong points. First, the acting is top tier. Little Heffernan is a darling young actress. It’s hard to keep your eyes off of her. The performers are eloquent and dynamic. Unfortunately the characters they’ve been assigned to are paper-thin. In fact, half are offensive cultural stereotypes. You have an overweight mammy, a wise old black man, an Italian mobster and a Jewish talent agent who occasionally drops some Yiddish and, at one point, refers to himself as a parasite.

A scene from "Wonders Never Cease" at Provision Theater in Chicago.

The play delivers one comedic triumph—the spot on Oprah impression. The opening parody commercial is a funny bit, too. It’s for a book titled Lattes with God and seeks to lampoon all those feel-good, spirituality books on the market. But unfortunately, the play lacks the awareness to understand the slippery slope it establishes. If Lattes with God is absurd, what about the premise of this play? For that matter, what about the books of the Bible, which were notated by men who were also hearing the word of God? Does the presence of a latte make all the difference?

In addition, the play has a very myopic view of spirituality. The cartoonishly villainous bad guys try to create a false dogma, one that centers on the self. Their catchphrase is, "It’s all about you." I get it. This is the "me" generation, and blatant selfishness is wrong. But they confuse the notions of self-love and self-compassion with pride and greed. In the words of Ru Paul, "If you can’t love yourself, how in the hell are you going to love somebody else?"

On a technical level, Wonders Never Cease is a good play. The production level is high, and the acting is strong. But underneath the high-gloss finish is little more than marshmallow fluff. This is junk food for the brain. It’s accessible and immediately gratifying. But you’ll be hungry for some substance soon after.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Wonders Never Cease runs runs Saturday, April 30 through Sunday, June 5 at Provision Theater located at 1001 W. Roosevelt Rd. The performance schedule is Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. ($28) and Sundays at 3 p.m. ($25). Student and group discounts are available. For tickets call 866.811.4111 or visit www.provisiontheater.org.

  
  

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REVIEW: Equus (Redtwist Theatre)

A Gripping Tale of Equestrian Mutilation

 

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Redtwist Theatre presents
   
Equus
   
Written by Peter Schaffer
Directed by
Michael Colucci
at
Redtwist Theatre, 1044 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through August 29  |  tickets: $22-$30  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Peter Schaffer’s 1973 psychological-detective caper Equus, with its sparse props list and focus on metatheatrically recreating journeys to the psyche, thrashes the audience about the dark corners of the mind. The plot is based on Schaffer’s re-imagining of a story he heard about a boy blinding 26 horses. Maybe not surprisingly, EQUUS1-72 with such a screwed-up headline, the rumor was that the young man came from a twisted religious household which Schaffer included in his first drafts of the play. In one of those great tales of revision, Schaffer edited his work so that boy actually creates his own religion, one that worships the horses he stabs. The final product is a terrifying plunge into spirituality and faith that rips into both contemporary views of morality and normative psychology.

Michael Colucci’s searing production at Redtwist Theatre puts this mental mess mere inches away from the audience, which includes the entire cast seated beneath eerie horse heads. We’re led through this forest by Brian Parry as Dr. Martin Dysart, who dissects the mind and actions of the disturbed Alan Strang (Andrew Jessop) in an attempt to piece together how anyone could do such a senselessly destructive act (the number of horses is reduced from 26 to 6 in the play). What he uncovers is a collage-like, one-person cult that ties together commercial jingles, children’s literature, Judeo-Christian theology, calendar photos, horses, and a pervading life force that bleeds through all existence. It’s a pretty interesting feat for a 17-year-old.

One of my favorite aspects of the play is that Alan’s parents (portrayed by Debra Rodkin and Laurens Wilson) are decidedly un-dysfunctional. Yes, Mrs. Strang is strongly Christian, Mr. Strang is loudly socialist, and the family is by no means the model of child-rearing. But Schaffer paints Alan’s background as relatively normal, and therefore avoids an easy “blame-it-on-the-parents” morality tale. While sometimes they come off as stock oppressive procreators, Rodkin and Wilson find the right subdued quality for the grieving family.

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Watching this tragedy unfold demands a lot from the audience. Parry leads brilliantly, gently taking our hands like we’re one of his patients yet never talking down to us. Jessop plays off Dysart’s questions with the required restraint, letting fly just enough vulnerability among the steaming piles of disinformation.

Redtwist produced this epic a few years ago, but Colucci’s version is considered a new envisioning. It’s not without its kinks. The second half doesn’t build correctly; it jerks, rather than swoops, towards the inevitable crash. The famous nude scene, which sort of counts as the spectacular finish in this spectacle-stripped play, feels unearned. Most of this is due to the lack of chemistry between Jessop and Holly Bittinger, who plays his almost-lover Jill. They overplay the awkwardness and can’t quite hit the animal magnetism.

EQUUS3-72 I wasn’t completely sold on the cramped set, designed by Jessop as well. The intimacy is interesting, but it lacks the cathedral-sized magnitude of religious ritual. Alan’s creation feels as grand as any of the polytheistic faiths of antiquity, and it follows that the idols should be as imposing as any old Sphinx or statue of Zeus. The effigies here are closer to hobby-horse size. Of course, this is a limitation of the space, and we do gain a tight focus on the characters. But either way, something feels missing.

With a space this small and a script this bombastic, a production of Equus could easily be overblown and awful. However, Colucci, Parry, and Jessop commit fully to the text for the whole 2.5 hours, never loosening their vise-like grip over the house. Schaffer’s final thoughts on spirituality versus normalcy are pretty bleak, and there is no attempt here to brighten them up. Colucci leaves it up to the audience to decide how to balance the gods present in our lives and the petty realities we face everyday, perhaps going beyond Schaffer’s words.

   
   
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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