Review: Nunset Boulevard (Theatre at the Center)

     
     

Newest nun revue is less than holy

     
     

Lauren Creel, Felicia Fields, Alene Robertson, Nicole Miller & Mary Robin Roth in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.

   

Theatre at the Center presents

  

Nunset Boulevard

  

Written By Dan Goggin
Directed and choreographed by Stacey Flaster
at Theatre at the Center, Munster, IN (map)
through May 29   |   tickets: $20- $40  |   more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

They say, “When you find something that works for you, stick to it.” Dan Goggin has made a living off of his troop of fictional nuns from Hoboken, New Jersey since the debut of his smash hit musical Nunsense in 1985. After seven spin-offs Goggin has penned the latest nun adventure, Nunset Boulevard. The musical nuns from Jersey travel to California for a gig at the Hollywood Bowl….-A-Rama. It makes some sense that the Chicago area premiere of this new show is being produced at Theater at the Center in Munster, Indiana, since, after all, Northwest Indiana is seemingly Chicago’s Jersey. It’s where we send our landfill, refining and casino gamblers. In this case, it’s where we send somewhat tired musical comedy such as this production directed rather flatly by Stacey Flaster. While there is some huge talent (namely Tony award nominee Felicia Fields) and occasional chuckles, it’s not quite worth the trip down I-90/94 for what is ultimately a cabaret show with too much space to fill.

Mary Robin Roth (Sister Robert Anne) and Nicole Miller (Sister Leo) in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.In their latest outing, our showbiz sisters arrive in Hollywood for what they think is a booking at the famous Hollywood Bowl. Instead, they are scheduled to appear at the Hollywood Bowl-A-Rama, a bowling alley somewhere in Hollywood. While generally Goggin’s nun shows are largely a cabaret style, Sister Hubert (Fields) suggests in this production that they include a plot (in one of the more fun musical numbers of the night). The show is still primarily though a cabaret style performance of comedic bits, musical numbers, improv and interacting with the audience (probably the highlight of the evening). However, there is a through line revolving around Sister Leo (Nicole Miller) and her quest to get “discovered” in Hollywood. It turns out a movie musical about nuns is auditioning across the street. Sister Robert Anne (Mary Robin Roth) is skeptical. She is especially conflicted when Sister Leo asks permission to appear before the casting director without wearing her habit. There is also Sister Amnesia (Lauren Creel), whose schitck is that she lost her memory due to a giant crucifix falling on her head.

The raunchier bits play the best, however there are not many of them. During the improv segment with the audience, there is a game made of naming famous nuns from the movies which rewards certain audience members with very funny religious keepsakes. The fact that the nuns sing and dance isn’t novel enough anymore to carry the interest of the audience over two hours. The Hollywood they are visiting is decidedly a Hollywood of old with songs like “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” and a parade of classic Hollywood blonde bombshells.

Fields provides some wonderful vocals and dry humor to the evening. Creel and Miller are also standouts with their energy. But, Flaster’s direction, along with certain Mary Robin Roth as Sister Robert Anne in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.performances, hamper the pacing. There’s a comedy-killing pause between nearly every line dragging the show down. The cast overall plays too small to fill this space. Also, there were numerous instances where several actors were restarting lines which took the wind out of any possibility for consistent laughs.

Stephen Carmody’s set is a “Vegas meets Magic Kingdom” take on Hollywood. The expansive facade could hold a big band and 20 chorus girls. Instead, we get 3 keyboardists, a drum kit and five nuns. The one-liners and corny, yet sometimes delightful, tunes come across as though they would fit better in a nightclub setting. The formality of this large theatre complex drowns out most of the charm.

Overall, the production elements are too polished and gaudy in contrast with what’s essentially comedic sketches and light songs. The vastness of the theater demands too much non-stop entertainment. I feel the same show could be placed in a setting such as Mary’s Attic (an upstairs bar lounge in Andersonville) and achieve a much better effect on its audience. There is definitely something here for diehard fans of Goggin’s nun series, but not enough to spark any excitement as these Jersey girls’ take on Tinsel Town.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

Felicia Fields, Lauren Creel, Alene Robertson, Nicole Miller & Mary Robin Roth in Theatre at the Center's "Nunset Boulevard" by Dan Goggin.

Theatre at the Center presents the Chicago Area premiere of Dan Goggin’s Nunset Boulevard, directed by Stacey Flaster, April 28- May 29 at 1040 Ridge Rd, Munster, IN. The performance schedule is Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m.; Wednesdays and Thursdays at 2:00 p.m. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $36 on Wednesdays-Thursdays, and $20-$40 Fridays- Sundays. Tickets may be purchased by phone (219-836-3255) or online at theatreatthecenter.com.

  
  

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Review: Festen (Steep Theatre)

  
  

A party of full earth-shattering disclosure

  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

   

Steep Theatre presents

  

Festen

   
Dramatization by David Eldridge
Based on Dogme film/play
Directed by Jonathan Berry
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through June 11  |  tickets: $20-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

A young melancholy Danish man who is the eldest son and heir to his father’s fortune becomes racked with grief after the drowning suicide of the closest female companion in his life. His sanity is in question. The patriarch of this empire is being celebrated while the son, who knows of a terrible family secret, plots revenge against this man who has destroyed his and his family’s life. Oh, and there’s a ghost. Sound familiar? If you’re thinking: Festen, a dramatic adaptation of a film from the Dogme series, you’d be correct. Any connection to that older play about a Danish prince is purely coincidental—and what a fascinating layer of coincidence it is. Director Jonathan Berry’s production of the Midwest premiere of this London hit is compelling from start to finish. Steep and artistic director Peter Moore have given Chicago audiences what’s sure to be a highlight of the season by bringing this hauntingly human piece to their intimate storefront space.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.While the resemblance to Hamlet is resonant (as Berry himself notes) the play takes its cue from several resources. “Festen” was the first film in the Dogme 95 movement, a style of no-frills filmmaking that focuses on stripping away production elements and focusing on verisimilitude in acting, story and mise-en-scène. The setting is the 60th birthday party for Helge (a difficult role mastered by Norm Woodel), the patriarch of an enterprise where family, business and home become entangled. The arrival of the family members is somewhat reminiscent of those murder mysteries where the characters all arrive, and are introduced, each with their own eccentricities. The audience becomes familiar with them in a light-hearted fashion. However, something is quickly off kilter here as Helge’s son Michael (Michael Salinas) begins a profanity laden tirade against one of the servants, Lars (Alex Gillmor) while treating his wife (Sasha Gioppo) like a slave, all in front of his young daughter (Julia Baker).

Some of the other party guests include Helge’s remaining children Christian (Kevin Stark) and Helene (Julia Siple), Helge’s brother Poul (Pete Esposito), his father (Toby Nicholson), and wife Else (Melissa Riemer).This family, on the surface, is more of a well oiled corporation as a whole. When horrid accusations are made by Christian, they are at first mere chinks in the empire that Helge has built. Those more blindly loyal to Helge, like Poul and his personal manager Helmut (James Allen), remain unfazed and continue with routine artificial celebration. All the while, it is the servants on this estate who are clearly running the show. They act as the silent all-knowing purveyors of justice who can completely throw the chain of events off course by simply hiding a set of car keys or a reluctance to pour a glass of port.

To really delve into what’s at stake for the characters in this play would be to divulge certain revelations that you, as audience member, should avoid knowing beforehand if at all possible. The audience response was silent, yet palpable and electric on the night I attended. One of the more fascinating scenes of the evening involves a perfect amalgamation of direction, acting and design in which three separate interactions occur simultaneously in the same area of the stage. A husband and wife make violent love against a wall while a woman reads her sister’s suicide note while another man refuses sexual advances and contemplates his own contempt. All of these moments happen within feet from each other in a choreographed response and obliviousness of the others.

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.There is not a weak link in this ensemble. It is cast with precision and great care for each of these characters. It will be a crime if the Jeff committee doesn’t remember this ensemble come next year. Kevin Stark leads the cast with his perfect portrayal of repression and redemption. Reimer’s final line in the play is delivered with such calculated casualty that it seems to lift a spell off this wounded family. I could go through why each of these actors should receive recognition, but that’s not quite what this play is about. This is truly about actors providing a service to their audience and to the story. No one actor ever goes too far with the drama or heaviness of the situation, but rather respects these people and story to the fullest extent.

Berry adds the perfect amount of theatricality to grip the audience viscerally and emotionally. His attention to the rituals of this world and their subsequent collapse is telling and authentic. Christopher Kriz’s sound design provides a driving emotional soundscape that encompasses a vast spectrum proving to be ghostly, elegant, foreboding, and yet hopeful. Sarah Hughey’s lighting design creates magnificent shadow effects as well as separates areas of this small space to help convey the story ever that much clearer. The minimalism of Dan Stratton’s clean Scandinavian set design echoes Ibsen and Bergman. The white sterile ornate walls and furniture proves to be disturbing in both an ethereal manner as well as disgusting as a reflection of certain revelations. Prop designer Sarah Burnham’s glassware and table settings play a vital role as they are surgically set in place. Janice Pytel’s costume design is at its best in the contrast between the color in the final scene and the formal coldness in the rest of the production.

Festen is a sophisticated journey of both the emotional and the psychological. It’s a rare piece of theatre that gives the audience a physical reaction to events. There is a moment in the final scene where Michael’s daughter sits on one of the character’s laps. She simply wants a storybook read to her. Due to common knowledge, everyone in the audience shared a knee-jerk reaction along with Gioppo as her mother. In the end, the audience has witnessed first-hand the revelations made and the life altering changes of these characters. I can only imagine what it must be like to see this play and have repressed similar horrific events that are referenced, and it’s very likely more than one seat will be filled with these individuals. While this is beyond heartbreaking, it is also doubtless that we all have hurtful occurrences big or small we’ve suppressed rather than forgotten or healed from. Festen shines a light on the courage of people who confront these battles, many within the private walls of their homes or minds.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

A scene from Steep Theatre's "Festen", directed by Jonathan Berry. Photo by Lev Kalmens.

Steep Theatre’s production of Festen, by David Eldridge continues through June 11th, with performances Thursday through Saturday at 8 p.m. The play runs 2 hours and 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $20 on Thursdays and $22 on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets may be purchased at www.steeptheatre.com or by calling 866-811-4111.

  
  

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Review: Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate (Filament)

  
  

Talented cast creates buzz, excitement – but not quite a play

  
  

Orpheus-Cast-Web

 
Filament Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate
 
Adapted and Directed by Omen Sade
Original Music by DJ Puzzle
at the Lacuna Artist Lofts, 2150 S Canalport (map)
through May 28th
tickets: $10-$15  |   more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Welcome to Club Dionysus. Following Filament Theatre Ensemble’s Friday and Saturday night performances of Eurydice, audiences have the opportunity to stick around for the dance party retelling of the same story in Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate. This dizzying and bizarre adaptation was created and directed by Omen Sade, who has incorporated several elements into this production that don’t always mesh. What he does create though, is an excitement and buzz through his utilization of DJ Puzzle and a multi-talented cast.

Nathan-Paul-as-a-Bouffon-WebUpon reentering the space, after a quick renovation following Eurydice, you’ll be asked to show an ID (usually a good sign, in this case you can get a smattering of wine). You’re greeted by the nymphs (Alyssa Denea Duerksen, Becca Drew Emmerich and Ashley Moret). After some time spent calibrating to the change of venue, and change of theatrical aesthetics, the nymphs gather attention with loosely choreographed hip hop dancing that will hopefully become a little tighter with time. We meet our hero, Orpheus (Kevin Barry Crowley), who is a famous rapper in Sade’s play. His entrance takes advantage of the gorgeously industrial freight elevator in the space. Crowley proves to be intense and skilled, working in tandem with DJ Puzzle in creating on-the-spot loops and layering on top of them.

Although the atmosphere is at first exciting, too many gaps of the story are clearly filled inside Sade’s head rather than onstage, such as why Eurydice is dressed in a business suit, or what exactly has brought these two together. It is taken for granted that the audience is familiar with the myth, and if you’re unaware of the story and do not see Filament’s Eurydice prior to this production, the events simply will not be communicated as this production stands alone. This is also partly why it’s best to see the double bill if you’re going to go to either production.

Even with the half-hearted storytelling, the after-party that is Orpheus provides an intoxicating experience. It also makes more interesting use of the Lacuna Loft space than Eurydice. While Eurydice appeared more like an attempt to transform the space into an alley style theater, Sade’s Orpheus fully embraces the vast starkness of the open areas. In the underworld, when Orpheus is followed by Eurydice on their exit out, they cross over into another vacant area of the floor which provides an opportunity for the audience to peer through and spy on the ghostly procession. Audience members are also encouraged, rather strongly, to take part in the festivities and dance. However, there is a barrier about the main dance floor around DJ Puzzle that seems off limits to the audience. The staging becomes only about half promenade. While there are a few opportunities for the audience to roam, they are mostly delegated to the wallflower position due to the central space almost always being occupied by action.

     
Jack-Novak-Lindsey-Dorcus-Nathan-Paul-as-Bouffons-Web Kevin-Crowley-as-Orpheus-and-Audrey-Bertaux-Skeirik-as-Euryd

The bouffoons (Lindsey Dorcus, Jack Novak and Nathan Paul) rival DJ Puzzle as the hardest working members of the cast. While their acrobatics are increasingly impressive, their commedia routines fall flat more often than not. Eurydice (Audrey Rose Bertaux-Saint) is performed largely through movement and action. Her acrobatics in the underworld is talented, yet doesn’t exactly communicate much about where she is and what state she is in.

Kyle Land’s lighting provides for some haunting images, inducing an effect reminiscent of German expressionism. Mieka van der Ploeg’s costume design distracts more than helps in this play, contrasting her whimsical design in Eurydice.

Overall, the balance between dance club and play is hazy to the point where there were several moments I’d rather just drop the story all together and simply enjoy moving around the space in this loft rave. DJ Puzzle is transfixing, but his role as Fate never truly comes to fruition. Nevertheless, when the story is in motion, it is told subtly through physicality. As a stand-alone production I couldn’t imagine Sade’s retelling to be worthwhile, but as a compliment and nightcap to Filament’s Eurydice, it’s just weird and fun enough to merit extending your night in Pilsen a little longer.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Becca-Drew-Emmerich-Ashley-Moret-Alyssa-Duerksen-as-Nymphs-W

Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate is adapted and directed by Omen Sade. It will run Friday and Saturday nights at 9pm through May 28th in conjunction with Eurydice. Tickets are $15; $10 if purchased along with Eurydice. Ticketing information is available at www.filamenttheatre.org/tickets.

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Review: Eurydice (Filament Theatre Ensemble)

     
     

Beautifully poetic, yet occasionally off key

     
     

Carolyn Faye Kramer as Eurydice in Filament Theatre Ensemble's 'Eurydice' by Sarah Ruhl.

 

Filament Theatre Ensemble Presents

 
Eurydice
 
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Julie Ritchey
Original music by Peter Oyloe and Shannon Bengford
at the Lacuna Artist Lofts, 2150 S. Canalport (map)
thru May 29  |  tickets: $10-$35 sponsorship |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Sarah Ruhl’s work can be seen all over Chicago this year, from The Court’s Orlando—to The Goodman’s premiere of Stage Kiss opening in May. All the while, she is not only being staged in our big name venues, but also in the fringe with Filament Theatre Ensemble’s remount of her 2003 play, Eurydice (in conjunction with Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate). And rest assured, the Pilsen space of the Lacuna Lofts is pure fringe with its unfinished, exposed and vacant expanse. It’s the type of building that’d be perfect for hide-n-seek, or the filming location for the next movie in the Hostel series. In this instance, director Julie Ritchey’s production, and Ruhl’s text, has something in common with the space, in that it is visually interesting, ignites curiosity, but in the end, it’s mostly empty.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Greek myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, you’ll not be out of the loop, as Ruhl extracts the more romantic and sentimental aspects, expounding on them in a contemporary fashion. The play opens with Orpheus (Peter Oyloe) and Eurydice (Carolyn Faye Kramer) in 1950’s swimsuits (costumed pitch-perfect by Mieka van der Ploeg). His love is so boundless that he offers her the world, literally, by giving her the sea, the sky and the stars. The only two thoughts ever on his mind are Eurydice and music, for Orpheus is the most talented musician in the world. After some lovely staging by Ritchey in the opening scene, Orpheus ties a string around Eurydice’s finger to which she responds amusingly, “That’s a very particular finger.” And so, the worry-free couple is to be wed.

Eurydice’s father (played with great heart by Patrick Blashill), is dead, yet he successfully manages to get a letter sent to Eurydice from the underworld. In a chain of events related to the letter, and ‘A Nasty Interesting Man’ (Nathan Pease), she takes a tumble to her death. And thus, she is transferred to the underworld, by way of a raining elevator version of the River Styx. Here we meet our chorus of three stones (played with dedicated physicality by Ted Evans, Brandon Cloyd and Ashley Alvarez), who unfortunately come off more annoying in their childishness than anything else.

The rest of the narrative plays out much the same as any version of the myth, as Orpheus gains entry to the underworld in search of Eurydice. However, in Ruhl’s imagining, there is a certain “through the rabbit hole” element to the underworld. Nothing is as it seems, everyday objects have lost their meaning, and it is a world void of emotion. Ruhl also takes her time to languish in stripping meaning from words like “father” and “love.” She writes a wonderfully lyrical monologue in a letter from Orpheus to Eurydice in which he ponders, “Eurydice is dead….who is Eurydice?…what are people?”

The direction and acting in Ritchey’s production is decidedly set in the two-dimensional, which in part works well with the Greek morality tradition. While it highlights Ruhl’s wit and verse, it sacrifices some of the heart and what’s at stake for each of these characters. Still, Carolyn Faye Kramer’s performance is smart and uninhibited. Nathan Pease’s turn as an “interesting” man is creepy yet intriguing, however as the Lord of the Underworld, Ritchey may have steered Pease’s character too far in the obvious direction with Ruhl’s childlike depiction. The doe-eyed Oyloe has wonderful focus with Orpheus’ unconditional loyalty to love and music. His naïve ambitions are committed to fully.

The overall mise-en-scène is starkly beautiful with the interplay between the cold industrial aesthetic of the space and the warm whimsical poetry in the costume, light and scenic design. Joe Schermoly uses minimal elements within the barren space, such as white tree branches, that are intriguing yet not fully transformative. The freight elevator serves as the perfect mode of transportation to the underworld. Sitting in silence, listening to the clanking of the approaching elevator—waiting—provides for a few of the more exhilarating moments of the night.

One fatal flaw in this production is the recorded music. Too often, it sounds more like the background music in an informational video for a time-share. The composition and design come off as unoriginal (I swear I heard the theme from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast quoted at one point on the piano), and falsely produced—the overly computerized MIDI sound to every note played on the strings takes away the possibility for any emotional response to the music or authenticity. It also underscores a bit loudly during key monologues and scenes. While this may seem a minor point, in a play that relies upon one of the main character’s abilities to create the most beautiful music in the world, it unfortunately takes the wind out of the sails of Orpheus’ journey. When Oyloe is alone on stage conducting a computerized orchestra, we do not believe he has tugged at the heart strings of any person or creature. Oyloe’s live acoustic guitar playing is far more effective than any of his and Shannon Bengford’s arrangements.

Ultimately, Filament may not have the resources to meet the necessities of Ruhl’s play. The lyricism of the dialogue can only sustain the story so far. The light playfulness of the text requires a higher level of theatricality and spectacle to maintain interest, and to achieve the intended emotional effect, and create a separation of the two worlds to flesh out Eurydice’s journey. The play wants to float along in a dream world in which anything can occur, time and language are rendered meaningless, and the desires of the characters are unbridled. In this fanciful, yet uneven production, I was woken up, and taken out of this dreamlike place a few too many times to consider the journey refreshing and worthwhile.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Peter Oyloe as Orpheus and Carolyn Faye Kramer as Eurydice in Filament Theatre Ensemble's 'Eurydice' by Sarah Ruhl.

Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice is directed by Filament’s Artistic Director, Julie Ritchey. It will run Friday through Sunday April 22 through May 29th in conjunction with Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate. All performances are at 7:30pm. Tickets are a $10 – $35 sponsorship. Ticketing information is available at www.filamenttheatre.org/tickets.


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Review: South Side of Heaven (Second City)

     
     

A morbid comedy of fate done to perfection

     
     

(L-R) Edgar Blackmon, Holly Laurent, Katie Rich, Tim Robinson, Timothy Edward Mason, and Sam Richardson. Photo by Michael Brosilow

  
The Second City presents
  
South Side of Heaven
  
Directed by Billy Bungeroth
Musical direction by Julie Nichols
at The Second City Mainstage, 1616 N. Wells (map)
open run  |  tickets: $22-$27  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Watching “Saturday Night Live” this past year I’ve tried hard to believe it’s on its way back to a quality decade. There are currently some talented cast members and writers, a few with Second City roots. However, I am consistently disappointed. Every sketch comes off as a stale parody of a brilliant sketch from past golden ages of the show. I was not exactly sure what was missing until I saw The Second City’s 99th revue, The South Side of Heaven. After over 50 years, Second City has managed to continue to stay current, take risks and find ways to still shock audiences through comedy. South Side shakes the status quo with writing that is absurd, truthful, and at (L-R) Holly Laurent, Sam Richardson • Photo by Michael Brosilow.times, refreshingly dark. Don’t expect a laugh-line at the end of each scene in this revue. There are moments of silence and reflection to take in comedy writing that is more than just a collection of sketches. Director Billy Bungeroth (critically acclaimed for his e.t.c. show still running, The Absolutely Best Friggin’ Time of Your Life our review ★★★½) maintains an aspect of comedy that is currently non-existent in the NBC counterpart to Second City: it remains vital.

Bungeroth of course has an unbelievably talented group of actors and writers in Edgar Blackmon, Holly Laurent, Timothy Edward Mason, Katie Rich, Sam Richardson and Tim Robinson. While Richardson gives what may be the best Obama impersonation I’ve ever seen, if there’s only one name to store away from this cast, Robinson is the one. He is bravely sardonic and juvenile as the outgoing Mayor Daley, complete with a flapping cape that is the Chicago flag. This is juxtaposed by Edgar Blackmon’s no-nonsense rapping version of Rahm Emanuel who, with a mob boss’ glare, reminds us to “Pay your taxes.” Robinson also showcases his commitment to his scene partner, which happens to be a Chipotle burrito, in one of the scenes I most identified with, along with a horde of other Chicagoans whose mouth waters at the glimpse of the gold foil wrapped delicacy on a billboard.

It also must be noted that, in part, what makes the casting of this show extraordinary is that there are two African-American actors, something Second City and other Chicago comedy venues fail at historically. The impact is that this allows the stereotypes of whites and blacks to be played to the edge; it also allows the African-American actors to play roles that have nothing to do with race, such as a truly heartfelt, hilarious and truthful segment featuring Robinson and Richardson. Robinson is a 30-something who still believes he’s going to play basketball for the Bulls, while Richardson is a United Center security guard who has aspirations of being a ninja. Heck, as he states, “I’m practically a ninja already.” The friendship and imagination in this scene plays out delightfully, especially to a Gen X and Gen Y crowd who may or may not still play NBA Jam on an old Sega Genesis.

Laurent and Rich complement each other perfectly in their scenes, and hold their own as the female voice in this male dominated cast. They never quite play the sex object—even as Kobe Bryant’s escorts they are still tongue-in-cheek as opinionated Chicago Polish babes. In another piece, Laurent is an English teacher hiding domestic issues which the smart outspoken Rich, as her student, sees through. The message in this scene attests to teaching our youth more facts about how the “real world” works. The segment could also hold its own as an incredible ten-minute play.

     
(L-R) Holly Laurent, Tim Robinson. Photo by Michael Brosilow. (L-R) Timothy Edward Mason, Holly Laurent, Katie Rich, Edgar Blackmon •  Photo by Michael Brosilow
(L-R) Holly Laurent, Katie Rich • Photo by Michael Brosilow (L-R) Timothy Edward Mason, Tim Robinson, Sam Richardson, Edgar Blackmon • Photo by Michael Brosilow

Thematically, South Side makes a comedic case for one of the nation’s largest problems. In America, people do not think of themselves as poor or middle class. Everyone is wealthy and successful and only in a temporary rut. We are constantly looking upward. People continue to overspend and over-live thinking that the future version of them will be rich enough to afford it. This is why people love American Idol and The Lottery, because it provides the illusion that “Joe Schmo” can become an overnight millionaire, or, why Mayor Daley fought so hard to get Chicago the Olympics, even when it wasn’t fiscally reasonable. South Side professes that people might try realizing that EVERYBODY’S life is miserable regardless of how perfect other people’s lives seem to be. While the show doesn’t entirely bash having dreams and aspirations, it does suggest that there are simply certain fates that cannot be altered. Perhaps only Cubs fans truly understand this notion, and in the best sketch of the night, the rousing debate between Cubs fans and Sox fans transcends the “Red Eye” obligatory June front cover and encroaches upon the territory of Jabari Asim (author of “The N-Word”).

The outrageous and darkly absurd also make several appearances throughout the night. Laurent has created a character reminiscent of Mary Catherine Gallagher, only the awkwardness is amped way up. A scene in with Robinson is the driver of a Chicago tourist horse drawn carriage ride (with Richardson dedicating all of himself to the part of the horse) goes to a place you don’t see coming, and keeps going. And Robinson earns the full exposure award of the night for unabashedly leaving nothing on stage as a captivating dancer.

(L-R) Tim Robinson, Sam Richardson • Photo by John McCloskeyAnother absolutely brilliant scene stars the quick witted Timothy Edward Mason as a TSA agent. Without giving too much away, this segment revolves around the new full body screening at airport security check-in sites. However, it becomes about so much more as it uses the audience, without their knowledge, to unquestionably prove how fragile our identities really are in the over exposed society we live in.

The technical and musical elements play an exceptionally large role in this production. Spotlights don’t always illuminate what we should be looking at. Julie B. Nichols’ music direction provides for very effective live accompaniment. Her transition music is a heavy quick dance beat that keeps the crowd lively. Sarah E. Ross’ set screams contemporary…and Apple Store, something that is both visually fresh and opens itself up to parody for the actors.

For those of you who treat Second City a little like Blue Man Group (you saw it 7 years ago and enjoyed it and you’d like to get back one day), do not make this mistake with South Side. All Second City shows are not created equal. There is no better way to come out of your winter hibernation than to laugh uncontrollably at this show. It may even make you change some of your Facebook privacy settings, reanalyze race in Chicago, and accept what life has dealt you with a stiff drink taking in this revue, created by some of the best in the world at what they do. You might even call them the “Montell Jordan” of comedy.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

(L-R) Holly Laurent, Timothy Edward Mason, Katie Rich • Photo by Michael Brosilow

South Side of Heaven is in an open run at The Second City Mainstage, 1616 N. Wells. Shows are Tuesday through Thursday 8PM, Friday and Saturday 8PM and 11PM, and Sunday 7PM. Tickets are $22 Sunday thru Thursday and $27 Friday and Saturday. Tickets are available by phone at (312) 337-3992 or online at www.SecondCity.com.

     
     

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Review: Before and After (Theatre Momentum)

     
     

Too many actors in the kitchen muddle interesting concept

     
     

'Before and After' at the Apollo Theater, presented by Theatre Momentum

  
Theatre Momentum presents
  
Before and After
  
Directed by Tony Rielage
at the Apollo Theater, 2540 N. Lincoln (map)
through May 7  |  tickets: $8-$10  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

In Chicago, improv is as synonymous with comedy as the Cubs are with losing. However, there is nothing about improvisational performance that inherently means humor. Most any acting school uses improv as experimentation in training to create performances that are urgent and honest. Theatre Momentum is an exciting theatre company poised to illuminate this fact with their mission of creating narrative based improv. Within the basement space at the Apollo Theater, director Tony Rielage and his company of improvisers have taken upon a notable artistic endeavor with their new production, Before and After. In the end, unfortunately it proves too overwhelming to succeed. While they 'Before and After' at the Apollo Theater, presented by Theatre Momentummay continue to evolve the structure, presently it exists in a state that is fairly entertaining in its high points, yet despite talented performers, falls flat more often than not during this extraneously long show.

The conceit of director Tony Rielage and his troop is to create a fresh narrative each performance, through improvisation, that follows a single character in the midst of a life-changing event, played by two actors in two different stages of the character’s life. The rest of the cast fill in the supporting roles. The performance I attended revolved around a Mark Zuckerberg type character that created a lucrative website encapsulating every internet obsession: web videos, online dating and the sale of ironic Jesus t-shirts. Derek Van Barham and Adam Ziemkiewicz played the central character in different moments of his life. Van Barham was exceptionally sharp as the younger version of the character in his cold manipulative discovery of how the internet can give him power. While Ziemkiewicz added heart to the story, the details of the events surrounding his version of the character were muddy. The life changing event was apparently the marriage of his lifelong love (played by Julie Chereson grounded with charming truthfulness).

As the format exists currently, 90 minutes seemed to cause the group to have to stretch for time and devise improvised scenes that were meaningless and bordering on incoherence. Also, the need to include each of the dozen cast members throughout the show takes too much focus away from the central relationship to carry any gravity. Nevertheless, there were a few impressive moments where these intelligent actors developed some heartfelt relationships, such as Van Barham and Peter Athans in a scene in which a son interviews his divorced father for a dating video to be posted online. Theresa Ohanian brings life and vitality to every scenario she is involved in, proving to have the sharpest wit and most guts in this cast. Athans is also a standout bringing the most truth, empathy and maturity to the stage. All the while, these strong actors come across as wasted talent in the daunting task to create a meaningful piece of theatre with few structural setups to guide their journey.

'Before and After' at the Apollo Theater, presented by Theatre MomentumAs time goes on, this cast may find ways to tighten up their stories and create higher stakes in scenes. While it may go against their mission, I hope that this company may take moments that work well and carry it over to following performances to build upon. I would love to see this very same cast and director tackle a slightly more developed production still utilizing their improvisational skills. If there were a solidified structure for these actors to play in, I feel that it would result in even more creativity. What we get now is far too large a canvas, too many paints and too many artists to give the audience a finished product that can be appreciated in its totality.

Still, Before and After may prove to be an interesting and worthwhile outing for hardcore fans or practitioners of improvisational performance. It certainly offers something different than the likes of iO and The Annoyance. While focused on dramatic narrative, there are still a handful of laughs and sketch moments. Nevertheless, as a piece of theatre it doesn’t quite hold up. It especially doesn’t hold up for a full 90 minutes. It’s a delicate balance between keeping the performances fresh and improvised, while also achieving a consistently coherent narrative within the structure Rielage has devised. The format may benefit from either adding a more preconceived plot to their plays, or condensing the action and losing a few cast members. Theatre Momentum has yet to figure out the correct formula, but they are worth keeping a close eye on.

  
  
Rating: ★★
  
  

'Before and After' at the Apollo Theater, presented by Theatre Momentum

Before and After is a 90-minute long performance at the Apollo Theater Studio, 2540 North Lincoln Avenue, and runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8 PM through May 7, 2011. Tickets are $10 Fridays and Saturdays, and $8 Thursdays. Reservations may be made through the Apollo Theater box office at (773) 935-6100 and at www.ticketmaster.com.

  

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Review: The Voodoo Chalk Circle (State Theatre Chicago)

  
  

Brecht adaptation successfully unearths New Orleans of old

  
  

Sarah Addison Ely, Ellenkate Finley, Alexis Randolph, Genevieve Lally-Knuth in a scene from State Theatre's 'Voodoo Chalk Circle'

   
State Theatre presents
  
The Voodoo Chalk Circle
  
Adapted by Chelsea Marcantel
Based on the original play by
Bertolt Brecht
Music by
Chris Gingrich and Henry Riggs
Directed by Tim Speicher
at the Viaduct Theatre, 3111 N. Western (map)
through May 8  |  tickets: $10-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

There was a unique and fascinating collaboration that occurred between two small theatre companies this year. The “Full Circle Festival” may have unfortunately fallen off the radar for many theatergoers; however, it began with Theatre Mir’s powerfully resonant production of Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle (our review ★★★★). Now, the State Theatre has given us the wonderful opportunity to revisit this story in a new light with Chelsea Marcantel’s New Orleans set adaptation, The Voodoo Chalk Circle. Marcantel has been an up and coming playwright in Chicago for a few years, and this may be her most ambitious and successful endeavor to date. Tim Speicher’s intelligent and creative direction creates a captivating visual and aural experience that is heavy on theatrics and light on political Brechtian alienation. After experiencing Theatre Mir’s substantial production, this abridged retelling is a fresh and exciting compliment.

A scene from State Theatre's 'Voodoo Chalk Circle'Before the play begins, the multi-talented Nick Demeris warms up the crowd as a street performer, similar to those that frequented the tourist areas of pre-Katrina New Orleans. We are then catapulted into a pre-hurricane New Orleans by our narrator, Josh Hambrock. He introduces us to Grusha (Ellenkate Finley) on her 21st birthday, which is being celebrated at a downtown nightclub on the eve of an encroaching hurricane. As opposed to Brecht’s Grusha, who is the servant to a governor, Marcantel perfectly casts her as the servant to the mayor of New Orleans’ wife, Nathalie (a strong performance by Jodi Kingsley). Playing her opposite is Simon (Caleb Probst), who proposes marriage on that evening. After her night out, Grusha returns to the boarded up mansion where she resumes her duties as the surrogate mother to the infant son, Michael, of the neglectful mayor’s wife.

And then there’s the storm. Speicher and music director, Chris Gingrich create an ingenious cacophony of sound, utilizing the evocative Sound Chorus. Combining crashing sheets of metal, jugs of water, wind vocalizations and drumming, the sense of calamity is created magnificently. During the post-storm, Grusha, along with Nathalie’s forgotten baby, flee for the suburbs of the North Shore seeking refuge with her sister. Instead, she finds what is essentially a Voodoo commune living in the ruins. They have rendered rebuilding pointless and have embraced the ways of “the old.” Their leader is the morally ambiguous Baron Samedi (played by Mark Viafranco with remarkable physicality and dexterity). Her sister does finally appear, now reborn into this ancient religion as Erzulie (Cara Olansky). Olansky is compelling in her performance as a woman who has lost everything and has turned, as often people do after traumatic events, to religion. However, Olansky gives us glimpses of loss and grief behind the stone face of a religion that celebrates the eternal, rather than mourns death.

Although engaged to Simon, Grusha agrees to be wed for security reasons to Zeke (Zachary Kropp), a man who appears to have been crippled from a roof collapse. Kropp gives a somewhat unconvincing performance, and the true motives of the character remains vague. However, for utilitarian purposes, the character serves the plot well during Simon’s discovery of Grusha living a life he had not expected to find her in. The final chalk circle scene remains faithful to Brecht’s original text, yet is modified just enough to allow for the ending to carry a certain element of surprise.

While there is strong acting and talent throughout, the casting could benefit from more diversity in ethnicity and age to truly provide the authenticity of New Orleans. Overall, the cast plays slightly on the younger side for a play focused on old traditions. Nevertheless, formidable performances are given by Finley and Probst. Hambrock is engaging as part Our Town Stage Manager: floating in and out of the world of the play, omnipresent, setting scenes and introducing characters—and part Orson Welles in The Third Man: revealing his true function as the judge of morality only in the final act, playing Brecht’s “walking contradiction”, Azdak.

Marcantel’s script is entirely worthy of this fine production. She has found an appropriate contemporary setting for this story and carries the action briskly with high stakes. She perhaps misses an opportunity to connect to Brecht’s original play further due to the fact that she treats the hurricane solely as a natural disaster without examining the political catastrophe in the city more in depth. Whereas Brecht’s war of rebellion was more concerned with the manmade cycle of oppression and corruption, the hurricane in Marcantel’s adaptation is rather “Oz-ian”, a dramatic tool in the form of a catastrophe turning the world upside down. I was also left wondering why Marcantel goes to great authentic lengths in setting this story richly in New Orleans, yet never quite goes as far as referencing New Orleans, Katrina or any other specifics directly. It’s possible some immediacy was lost with this decision. Her dialogue is best in the earlier sections of the story discussing class struggles and Voodoo practices, but falls slightly flat in the oversentimentality of the Grusha and Simon love story.

In the end, it is Speicher’s concept, the emergence of the past from the ruins of modernity, which makes this play a must-see. He truly understands the ritualistic nature of Marcantel’s setting. Gingrich and Riggs’ music is a driving force of nature throughout the play. The Sound Chorus serves as the spiritual voice and heartbeat of old traditions made anew. Shaun Renfro’s set design condenses the action to an intimate section of the barn-like Viaduct space by the use of hundreds of cardboard boxes, reminiscent of essentials that were airdropped to Katrina survivors. In addition, Renfro creates an ingenious playground of set pieces that allow for interaction with the actors. Taylor Bibat’s shadow puppetry represents the concept perfectly by providing an ancient theatrical tradition as opposed to video projections.

The final monologue Marcantel writes for Azdak is poetic and resonant stating, “It’s hard to see how everything comes together, until everything falls apart.” While this production soars, I am left hoping that Marcantel may continue to develop the script into a full adaptation finding more parallels and urgency in the injustice that occurs in the aftermath of natural disasters. It is of high compliment that I wished to spend even more time with these characters and in this world Marcantel has transplanted them to—nevertheless, it is immediately an important piece of theatre this season that should not be overlooked.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

The Voodoo Chalk Circle presented by State Theatre Chicago

The Voodoo Chalk Circle continues at The Viaduct through May 8th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:15pm and Sundays at 3pm. Running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes with no intermission. Tickets are $10-$20, and can either be purchased online or by calling (773) 296-6024.  For more information, visit www.statetheatrechicago.com.

The Voodoo Chalk Circle is part of the “Full Circle Festival” in collaboration with Theatre Mir to provide audiences with two uniquely different versions of Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle. The State Theatre closes the festival following Theatre Mir’s production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle directed by Jonathan Berry.

 

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