Review: Night and Her Stars (The Gift Theatre Company)

  
  

Thornton and his cast earn their ‘applause light’

  
  

Ray Shoemaker and Joe Mack in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.

   
The Gift Theatre presents
  
Night and Her Stars
  
Written by Richard Greenberg
Directed by
Michael Patrick Thornton
at
Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map)
through April 24  | 
tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

The effect of television on human civilization has been up for debate since the first flickering blue light emitted into people’s homes. “What was life like before television?” is a question that is repeated in Richard Greenberg’s 1995 play, Night and Her Stars, revolving around the 1950’s quiz show scandal involving academic Charles Van Doren and the Q&A show, “21”, now running at The Gift Theatre, directed with mastery by artistic director, Michael Patrick Thornton.

The vast majority of the American population can hardly fathom an existence without television. As this number increases, the debate on the social implications of television withers, being replaced by greater evils of technology. Nevertheless, this tale of America’s tested faith in television, and The Gift’s production, succeeds in reveling in nostalgia whilst finding immediacy, resonance and heart in its characters and their flaws.

Lindsey Barlag (foreground) and Erika Schmidt in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.As Greenberg himself notes, this play “must not be mistaken for history.” It is in this vain that the Gift takes us back to a skewed cold war era consumer driven television world of the 1950’s. Set designer Adam Veness does a remarkable job of transforming the tinderbox storefront space into a gaudy haunting replica of the notorious game show, “Twenty One”, complete with an “Applause” lighted sign and a four-sided blue glowing orb of a television set.

The first act primarily follows the rise and fall of the knowledgeable Jewish contestant Herb Stempel (played by Raymond Shoemaker with pitch perfect desperation, optimism and hamartia). Stempel is discovered by game show producer Dan Enright (Danny Ahlfeld) after being pressured by sponsors and execs to bring brighter contestants onto the show to avoid dead silence and stammering. Ed Flynn gives an entertaining supporting performance as the Geritol sponsor pleading with Enright, “I have to appeal to geriatrics.” These demands lead to Enright feeding answers to an initially hesitant Stempel resulting in his reigning championship run.

Stempel’s ethnicity and lack of on-camera charisma aren’t quite what the show’s audience is looking for, as Keith Neagle delivers the powerfully cringing line, “I hate him like rabies!” In one of the highlights of the play, Shoemaker is brilliant as Stempel pleading for any other question than the one he is given to go down on during his fall. As Stempel begins to reveal the truth to the press, Enright plays it off as “Jewish self-hatred.”

Along comes the more “all-American” contestant Charles Van Doren (Jay Worthington) who descends from a long line of famed academics. Van Doren is fed answers to replace Stempel on the show. Worthington gives a complex and exciting performance. As Charlie, he conveys a man who is given everything at once, yet happiness eludes him.

Charlie Van Doren’ can be considered a symbol of television stardom, be it quiz shows or reality shows. He embodies short lived fame and a lack of touch with the real world. Contrasting another Charlie amidst a modern day TV scandal, Van Doren finally exclaims, “I don’t want to win anymore.” Van Doren’s confession is staged effectively by Thornton with a chorus of the Christian congress instantly forgiving his sins.

Branimira Ivanova’s costumes are scrumptious, with many raided directly from the “Mad Men” wardrobe department, giving us glimpses into a range of rising movements in the late 50’s during the American Chorus’ interludes. The pinstriped suit and polka-dotted tie Enright gives to Stempel for his television debut is a sure laugh each night. Lighting designer Scott Pillsbury creates impressive effects and moods with the small space including an emotional lighting storm and perfectly placed moments in which the audience becomes lit. Miles Polaski’s sound design balances nicely between the atmospheric and the expressive spectrums.

     
Keith Neagle, Aemilia Scott and Jay Worthington in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg. Aemilia Scott and Ray Shoemaker in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars', wirtten by Richard Greenberg.

While Shoemaker and Worthington carry the show, it is ultimately an ensemble production. Joe Mack may be the most perfect casting in his turn as the oblivious game show host Jack Berry. Thornton utilizes Greenberg’s American Chorus expertly, as these fine actors come into the light to play pivotal roles only to disappear into an ever watching amoeba. Katie Genualdi is charming and smart in her various appearances, especially at the top of the second act in an ad for cornflakes infused with caffeine. Erika Schmidt has a calm intensity as a reporter who finally brings Van Doren to the truth. Established Chicago actor Paul D’Addario, as the exec Al Freedman, is as powerful of a presence silent as he is during dialogue. Aemilia Scott, as Stempel’s wife, is fascinating in struggling with her doubts for her husband. Ahlfeld’s Enright occasionally has some pacing and timing issues that may get tighter during the run.

While Greenberg’s telling of this cautionary tale may not land quite as powerfully as a decade or two ago, it still stands the test of time as an historical account that has grown into legend. The heart and humanity of this play lies with a character I’ve yet to mention played with wonder and honesty by veteran actor Richard Henzel. Perhaps, do yourself a favor and save the reading of the program until after the show and be surprised by the final scene in which we finally see Van Doren in his natural setting.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Jay Worthington and Richard Henzel in Gift Theatre's 'Night and Her Stars' by Richard Greenberg.

Night and Her Stars continues at The Gift Theatre through April 24th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm with Sunday matinees at 2:30. (no shows April 16 and 17). Running time is 2 hours, 25 minutes with one intermission. Tickets are $25 (Sundays) and $30 (Thursday, Friday and Saturday). Industry and senior prices: $20 (Sundays only). For more info visit  thegifttheatre.org.

     
     

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REVIEW: Suicide, Incorporated (Gift Theatre)

Working 9 to 5 – for an Easier Way Out

 

88 88 88
   
Gift Theatre presents
  
Suicide, Incorporated
   
Written by Andrew Hinderaker
Directed by
Jonathan Berry
at
Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map)
through July 25th  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Gift Theatre’s tightly woven cast make the most of Andrew Hinderaker’s world premiere one-act, Suicide, Incorporated. Directed by Jonathan Berry, the play cleverly provides them with a lot of most to make. First, it features a business whose mission is to mold a suicide’s dead-end perspective into a skillfully crafted final farewell letter; second, the play depicts the general corporate tendency to reframe life’s tragedies into manageable chunks of reality that will yield to its scripted dialogues and flowcharts. Scott, owner and founder of the business, is played with sharp, savage and mercenary relish by Ed Flynn. Yet even he is just using the tools he’s learned in business school to create order against the inexorable pull of suicide’s black hole. Too bad he cannot avoid creating new victims, like his manically kiss-ass assistant, Perry (Jay Worthington).

josh&mikediner-1.jpg_20100616_13_54_26_26-116-165 We find his new employee, Jason (Joshua Rollins), a writer of former Hallmark Card fame, already well down that rabbit hole—conversing with shadowy figures like his younger brother Tommy (Mike Harvey) and last-chance customers like wheelchair-bound Norm (Michael Patrick Thornton). The spookiness of Jason’s conversations with his brother doesn’t become apparent until midpoint through the play’s progress–this is perhaps the biggest flaw of Gift Theatre’s production or Hinderaker’s play. Stronger foreshadowing of Jason’s true relationship with Tommy is necessary for greater impact. Also, a clearer sense of Jason’s edginess would also lend veracity to his final intentions in the play’s last 15 minutes.

But, as a general rule, Suicide, Incorporated is not about family bonds—it’s about life under a business model, wherein the company of men becomes your real family, whether you want it to or not. All work and no play, that’s the quintessence of Jason’s character—stereotypically forming stronger bonds with the people he works with, or serves at work, rather than with his own flesh and blood. Lucky for the audience, Jason’s growing relationship with new customer Norm makes for the real backbone of the show.

Thornton’s performance as Norm is immaculate; every tic and pause perfectly timed—an actor’s showcase of steady, low-key, precise technique. Such an accurate portrayal makes Norm’s confession about how he ruined the love 89of his life simultaneously bizarre and eerily truthful. “How did I become one of those guys?” Norm asks; the lone guy you thought could never hurt a fly, the lone guy who loses his newlywed wife by stalking her. It’s a masterpiece of characterization.

All these lonely men—where do they all come from? That was the question I was forced to ask myself at the close of Suicide, Incorporated. If Hindraker’s play holds any water, then it seems that they all come from business school or from workplaces that barely feed their souls or even lets them know that they have souls to feed–or lives worth living outside the workplace. It’s only a one-act, but what goes missing the most from the play is the acknowledgement that these male characters were never encouraged to be whole to begin with. Once they have lost someone vitally important to them, yet existing outside the business model, will they ever get a real chance to be whole again?

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Showtimes are Thursdays and Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30pm with Sunday matinees at 2:30.

Featuring Gift Artistic Director and ABC’s Private Practice’s Michael Patrick Thornton with guest artists Josh Rollins, Mike Harvey, Ed Flynn, Jay Worthington and Jim Farruggio.

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REVIEW: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Gift Theatre)

Crazy good, but not great

 
CUCKOOS#2
 
The Gift Theatre presents:
 
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
 
by Dale Wasserman
based on the novel by Ken Kesey
directed by John Kelly Connolly
at Gift Theatre, 4802 N. Milwaukee (map)
through May 9th (more info)

reviewed by Katy Walsh 

“Vintery, mintery, cutery, corn,
Apple seed and apple thorn,
Wire, briar, limber lock
Three geese in a flock
One flew East
One flew West
And one flew over the cuckoo’s nest.”

      -American children’s folk rhyme

Less than fifty years ago, lobotomies and electroshock treatments were still the accepted prescription to cure mental illness. The Gift Theatre presents One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a play based on the multiple Academy Award-Winning film version of the novel of the same name, by Ken Kesey. Set in 1959, the story takes place in a psychiatric institution. The patients, orderlies and even doctors are under the self-appointed supervision of Nurse Ratched. Through ‘therapeutic’ humiliation, Nurse Ratched manipulates her fiefdom into disciplined obedience. Her tranquility is threatened upon the arrival of Randle Patrick McMurphy. Trying to avoid hard labor on a work farm, McMurphy opts for the loony bin to serve his remaining five month sentence. Although McMurphy is non-compliant with authority issues, he’s not crazy. It’s Ratched vs McMurphy for control of the psychos. Seeing the Gift Theatre’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a voluntary commitment to witness the true madness of corrupt authority in a healing profession.

The Gift Theatre has this Grotowski quote on their home page:

 
Acting is a particularly thankless art. It dies with the actor.
Nothing survives him but the reviews, which do not usually do
him justice anyway, whether he is good or bad. So the only
source of satisfaction left to him is the audience’s reaction. The
actor, in this special process of discipline and self-sacrifice,
self-penetration and molding, is not afraid to go beyond all
normally acceptable limits.  The actor makes a total gift of himself.

                –Jerzy Grotowski “Towards a Poor Theatre”

It’s a powerful statement to the life of a stage actor. Movie actors have it a little easier. Their legacy is preserved in film… forever. Unfortunately and fortunately, it’s the Academy Award-Winning performances of Jack Nicholson (McMurphy) and Louise Fletcher (Ratched) that haunt this stage version. Both Paul D’Addario (McMurphy) and Alexandra Main (Ratched) play it safe – following suit to the film depiction of their roles. It’s not wrong, but it just isn’t quite right. To quote Nurse Ratched, D’Addario and Main are “just fine.”

CUCKOOS#3 This show really belongs to the supporting crazies. Jay Worthington (Billy Bibbit) is a standout as a stuttering, vulnerable mama’s boy. Different from the film version of his character, Kent L. Joseph (Chief Bromden) narrates the crazy practices of the hospital in disturbing monologues. His ability to ball up his massive frame into a defenseless pile is amazing. David Fink (Martini) is hilarious in his delusional state. Guy Massey (Harding) is frighteningly sane as a crazy patient. With no real lines, Adam Rosowicz (Ruckly) delivers a memorable performance with inhumane sounds and physicality.

This cast is huge. The stage is small. Under the direction of John Kelly Connolly, the ensemble set up and break down chairs an insane amount of times. This stage “clean-up” throws off the pacing slightly and the scene transitions are clunky. The set, designed by Ian Zywica , is institutional, right down to the green “mental ward” paint choice. Kate Murphy designed the costumes which are a wonderful combo of old school nurses’ uniforms, 50’s cocktail dresses and pajama party. Whether it was Murphy’s or the actor’s decision, I loved Norman H. Tobin (Scanlon) appearing throughout the show with only one slipper on. Come on…that’s crazy!

Overall, this production tends to basically be a live version of the 1970’s movie, which makes it an entertaining gift available to be unwrapped through May 9th.
 

 

Rating: ★★½

 

 CUCKOOS#1

Running time: two hours and forty five minutes includes fifteen minute intermission and delayed start.  

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