REVIEW: Odradrek (House Theatre)

  
  

House Theatre finds its groove

  
  

Odradrek by Brett Neveu - House Theatre of Chicago - music Josh Schmidt - director Dexter Bullard

  
House Theatre of Chicago presents
  
Odradrek
 
Written by Brett Neveu
Music by
Josh Schmidt
Directed by
Dexter Bullard
at
Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through March 5  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The House Theatre of Chicago isn’t known for their gloominess. They often dip into darker subjects, especially death (Dave DaVinci Saves the Universe, The Nutcracker our review ★★★½), sometimes drugs (All the Fame of Lofty Deedsreview ★★★), and, once, children killing each other with metaphorical handguns (Girls Vs. Boysreview). Their newest offering, Odradek, a riff on Kafka via Brett Neveu, is easily the bleakest story I’ve seen by the puckish group. The promotional material compares the play to Hitchcock, and in a semi-disclaimer, artistic director Nathan Allen warns that the “show is scary.” I firmly believe that the hardest emotion to evoke in an audience is not glee, or sadness, or despair, but fear. To be honest, Odradek never really scared me. And it’s not very Hitchcockian; it feels more like “Saw” meets Beverly Cleary.

Odradrek by Brett Neveu - music Josh Schmidt - director Dexter BullardThe play is beautifully realized by designers Collette Pollard and Lee Keenan. The play works best when seen as performance art, not a intellectual venture. Neveu and Dexter Bullard, two newcomers to the House, want this play to be both a tragically complex story and a macabre poem. They can’t nail down either. Neveu’s language is delightfully lyrical, but it doesn’t make for a coherent piece of drama. Realities, fantasy, and hallucination are blurred and the three characters’ motivations are convoluted. However, the show still takes the audience on a ride in true House style.

The play centers around a Boy (Joey Steakley), who comes from a broken, but not abusive, home. He lives with his Father (David Parkes), who enters into an ethically-questionable romance with the Boy’s Doctor (Carolyn Defrin). The Boy, on the other hand, enters into a relationship with a monster that lives under the stairs, Odradek. Slowly, the Boy slips down a path of confusion and self-mutilation.

The plot has a few holes, which I’ll wager are intentional. The Doctor is pretty clearly a primary care physician, and the Boy very clearly requires some facetime with a psychologist. The Boy’s wounds provided another puzzle, because it wasn’t clear if they were imagined or actual. As the play progresses, the grip on reality loosens and every aspect of the story comes into question.

The Boy’s affliction is linked to his parent’s divorce, but not much is explained. Neveu relies heavily on images, metaphors, and anecdotes for mood, but none of these provide stakes for the Boy. Colors are especially important—the Doctor asks the Boy what color his mother’s eyes are, while Odradek quizzes him about the hues of blood and sinew. But these tangents don’t explain why he misses his mom or why he chooses to hurt himself.

Even with the stylistic clashes, the cast handles the play well. Parkes’ performance is fascinating to watch in his House debut. He gives the Father a gritty, Chicago-style treatment that isn’t found in many House shows. Defrin, always a pleasure, plays against him decently, even though she’s more presentational. Steakley comes off zombiefied in a challenging role, and his age is very hard to pinpoint (I sort of figured he was around 25 but still living at home). He hits astride as his story unravels.

Infusing the company with new blood this season is a truly refreshing idea. In recent years, the House seemed to be stumbling at times. Odradek is a worthy venture and dives into territory that the company had successfully plunged into in the past. But it lacks heft. The play doesn’t reveal much about mental illness, divorce, or a connection between the two. Its value lies in how it strikes the ear, the eye, and the soul – not the mind.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

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Review: Thieves Like Us (House Theatre of Chicago)

 

Predictable bank-robbing adventure is fun as heck

Thieves Like Us - House Theatre - Byrnes Bowers Hickey

   
The House Theatre of Chicago presents
 
Thieves Like Us
   
Written by Damon Kiely
Directed by Kimberly Senior

at Chopin Theatre,  1543 W. Division (map)
through October 30  |  
tickets: $25-$29  |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

House Theatre fans will be in their raucous comfort zone with the company’s latest action-packed production. Thieves Like Us is chock full of the House’s signature elements:  Retro-comic book storyline? Check. Old school siren whose vocal stylings punctuate the scenes? Check. Cops, robbers, dames and drunks? Yup. And where previous House productions have made ingenious use of actors striding across the stage carrying picture frames and pop-up books to evoke small towns, big cities and points in between, Thieves uses a similar technique with newspapers to illustrate the Dust Bowl surroundings of Bowie Bowers and his posse of stick-up men.

But even with its profoundly predictable ending (which pays homage and owes a debt to both Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thieves Like Us  is a step up for the House. After bursting onto the scene in the early Aughts with an inspired, revisionist take on Peter Pan,  the House continued with variations on the theme of lost boys long enough to become repetitive. The particulars changed as the House churned out stories of Samarai, cowboys, wannabe rockstars, science nerds and flying cheerleaders (our review ★★★½) – but the core of each adventure remained the same: Adolescence is tough. Growing out of it is even tougher.  For a while, it seemed that their target audience was restricted to ‘tween boys.

thieves Like Us - House Theatre - posterThat demographic will love Thieves Like Us, no doubt. But Thieves, written by Damon Kiley and directed by Kimberly Senior also has enough smarts and wry self-awareness to make grownups smile as well. It’s hero – Bowie Bowers, Depression-era desperado driven to thieving because an honest Joe can’t catch a break in the Dust Bowl – is surely relatable to anybody who has felt the pinch of the current recession (which is to say, everybody).

We first meet our hero at hard labor on a prison somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line – the locale being evident by the oozing-syrup Okie drawl everybody talks with. It’s mere moments before the first burst of cartoon violence breaks out as Bowie (John Byrnes), hardened convict Chicamaw (Shawn Pfautsch) and elder statesman T-Dub (Tom Hickey) make a break for it. Across the plains they go, knocking over banks and planning One Last Score so that all can retire, maybe in sunny May-hee-ko. There’s A Girl (of course), who is instrumental in convincing Bowie to give up the stick-ups and settle down to a quiet life “on the straight.”  But of course Bowie can’t do that until he makes that One Last Score. And but of course, the last heist goes spectacularly awry.

The plot may be less than innovative, but the Kiley’s dialogue and the ensemble’s zesty execution of it make it mighty entertaining.

As Bowie, Byrnes creates a man of simple wants and basic decency – all he wants is a clean start, Bowie keeps emphasizing, but of course that’s just not possible, no matter how much money he steals.

Senior elicits strong performances from her supporting cast as well, starting with Pfautsch’s Chicamaw, who comes close to stealing the show along with the loot from the vault. Pfautsch instills the violent, hard-drinking, hardened criminal  Chicamaw with an impish spark that’s part playful sprite and part psychopath. It’s hard to say which is dominant, and that’s part of the character’s dangerous, wild-eyed charisma. The third man in the gang is Hickey‘s T-Dub, the nominal brains of the group. Also memorable is Tim Curtis, who exudes sly, degenerate charm first as a retired hold-up man and later as an oily attorney.

As for the women in the cast, Chelsea Keenan radiates joy, lust and deliciously girlish immaturity as Lula, a good-time blonde who can turn a kitchen table into a dance floor faster than you can say Jack Robinson.  And as a one-woman Greek goddess of a Greek chorus, Beth Sagal’s torch song narration is as rich and velvety as fine chocolate.  Breathing life into the composer Kevin O’Donnell’s seductive melodies, she’s a showstopper whose perspective adds significant depth to the comic book veneer. As for Bowie’s gal, the “Pistol Princess” Cheechie, Paige Hoffman is an appropriately hard-nosed moll although her romance with Bowie isn’t especially believable – they seem to love each other only because conventional storytelling demands that the main gangster have a girl to complicate matters.

The adventures of Bowie Bowers might not be especially original. But they’re colorful and clever and entertaining as heck.

   
   
Rating: ★★½       
   
      

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House Theatre: The Magic Parlour extends to open-run

  The Magic Parlour - House Theatre of Chicago 

The House announces an Open-Ended Run of The Magic Parlour

Originally intended to be a one-night-only benefit for The House Theatre of Chicago, The Magic Parlour has already proven to be so successful that The House is producing the show as Chicago’s only weekly late-night magic show!

Dennis Watkins, a third-generation magician, currently performs his one-man comedy magic show for corporate events and colleges all across the country. The performance contains some of his favorite pieces of magic, alongside some brand new routines in an hour-long show packed with mind-reading, levitations, escapes, and a ridiculous new adaptation of the classic “Card Stab” during which Watkins climbs inside of a fully inflated 7 foot balloon!

The show, intended for an audience of approximately 50, is hugely interactive. Guests of The Magic Parlour will participate by having their minds read, offering every day objects such as money, rings, or watches to be used as props, and even performing unexpected miracles through out the show.

The downstairs cabaret at The Chopin offers the perfect setting for this slightly timeless, quirky and unique event. With its comfortable seating, intimate stage and off-beat décor, the cabaret is the perfect venue for this style of magic.

Beer and wine are served before and after the performance.

When I was a kid my grandfather was my teacher. This show is a collection of some of the magic we developed together over the years. It’s also sprinkled with tidbits of his magical wisdom and some material he’s never seen, but would have really loved. It’s light, it’s fun, and it’s totally mind-boggling,” says Watkins.

WHEN: Every Friday night at 10:30 pm – STARTING SEPTEMBER 10
WHERE:
The Chopin Theatre: 1543 W. Division, Chicago, IL
TICKETS:
$25, available online at www.thehousetheatre.com or via phone at 773.769.3832

The Magic Parlor: An intimate evening of classical magic with Dennis Watkins

More info at www.thehousetheatre.com

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Show closings – last chance to catch ‘em!

chicagoSkyline

show closings

Abe’s in a Bad Way Free Street Theater (review ★★★)

Air Guitar High Northwestern University

A Chorus Line Village Players Performing Arts Center

The Informer Prop Thtr

J.B. Chicago Fusion Theatre (review ★★★½)

Messiah on the Frigidaire Hubris Productions (review ★★★½)

Number of People Piven Theatre Workshop (review ★★★)

The Pillowman Redtwist Theatre (review ★★★)

Science Fiction Actors Gymnasium (review ★★★½)

Side Man Metropolis Performing Arts Centre (review ★★★★)

A True History of the Johnstown Flood Goodman Theatre (review ★½)

Twelve Angry Men Raven Theatre (review ★★★)

 chicagoatnight

this week’s show openings

Billy: A Post-Apocolyptic Comedy Northwestern University

Bloom Bailiwick Chicago

Cabaret The Hypocrites

Curse of the Starving Class New Leaf Theatre

Days of Late – SiNNERMAN Ensemble at the Viaduct Theatre

The Diary of Anne Frank Metropolis Performing Arts Centre

The Doctor’s Dilemma ShawChicago

Elictracidad – DePaul’s Merle Reskin Theatre

Endgame Steppenwolf Theatre  (our review ★★★½)

The Farnsworth Invention TimeLine Theatre

Girls vs. Boys The House Theatre of Chicago

Hephaestus Lookingglass Theatre

An Ideal HusbandColumbia College at Getz Theatre

Little Women: The Musical Loyola University Chicago

Los Nogales Millenium Park and Teatro VistaTheatre with a View

The Musical of Musicals (The Musical) Dominican University

Oliver Rising Stars Theatre Company

The Original Improv Gladiators Corn Productions

Moses in Egypt Chicago Opera Theater

Six Dead Queens and an Inflatable Henry Piccolo Theatre

Spring Awakening Promethean Theatre Ensemble

The Taming of the Shrew Chicago Shakespeare Theater

The Trestle at Pope Lick Creek 20% Theatre Chicago

Welcome to Arroyo’s American Theater Company

Theater Thursday: House Theatre’s “All the Fame of Lofty Deeds”

Thursday, December 3

All the Fame of Lofty Deeds

The House Theatre of Chicago at the Chopin Theatre
1543 W. Division St., Chicago

loftydeedsphotoEnjoy complimentary pizza in the famous Chopin Theatre lobby before the performance, then stick around for the world premiere production written by rock journalist Mark Guarino and based on and featuring the music and artwork of Bloodshot Records recording artist Jon Langford (Mekons, Waco Brothers). This phantasmic journey into the mind of a fictional country music legend is what an episode of Howdy Doody might look like if it were directed by David Lynch. Sadly reflective and yet hilariously surreal, House Theatre’s All the Fame of Lofty Deeds mixes rock biography, live music and stunning visual effects to tell a tripped out tale of the demise of America’s last living cowboy. Stick around after the performance for a talk back with the some of the show’s cast and creative team.
Event begins at 7 p.m.
Show begins at 8 p.m.

TICKETS ONLY: $25
For reservations call 773.251.2195 and mention "Theater Thursdays."

Read our review here.

Review: House Theatre’s “All The Fame Of Lofty Deeds”

A banjo-picking, toe-tapping, tumbleweed-talking good time!

 

The House Theatre of Chicago presents:

All The Fame of Lofty Deeds

At the Chopin Theatre
Written by Mark Guarino
Based on and featuring the music and artwork of Jon Langford
Directed by Tommy Rapley
Thru December 20th (ticket info) 

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

lofty_deeds_poster Chugging whiskey, a forgotten country singer confesses his mistakes to a tumbleweed. The House Theatre of Chicago presents All The Fame of Lofty Deeds. The familiar cowboy skull and cross-guitars painting of Jon Langford is the basis for the character Lofty Deeds, an aging honkytonk singer. Playwright Mark Guarino utilizes the music and artwork of Bloodshot Records recording artist Jon Langford to create this play. As he faces his death, Lofty Deeds struggles with his past decisions. After trading love and family for life on the road under the exploitative pressures of record executives, Lofty is now haunted by the ghosts of musicians past.

Nathan Allen takes on the duality role of Lofty Deeds. He mixes the bitter drunk old man moments with flashback scenes of a naïve country singer at his happiest… on stage. The set design by Lee Keenan feels like a Jon Langford painting with its stark, gritty qualities. Where do has-been country singers go to die? A trailer in the desert, of course. Continuous reminders that this is a show about a man in a painting, director Tommy Rapley has actors don portraits to portray the ghosts of musicians past. On the stage within the stage, the live band adds to the upbeat tempo with memorable songs like “It’s Not Enough” and “The Death of Country Music.”

The story is dark; the forgotten celebrity drinking himself to death. The script is complicated; flashbacks with stories within stories. But like enjoying any country song, don’t get too caught up in the story or words. And appreciate art for art! Take pleasure in the music and the colorful images. What came first – the song or the picture? Langford created the character Lofty Deeds in his song “All The Fame of Lofty Deeds” and in his cowboy skull painting. Guarino took the song and wrote the play. The House Theatre took the play, painting and song have brought it to life on stage. The results, All The Fame of Lofty Deeds is a banjo-picking, toe-tapping, tumbleweed-talking good time.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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