REVIEW: Labour and Leisure (AstonRep Theatre)

  
   

Scant balm for the working man

  
  

Good-Faithful Servant 1

  
AstonRep Theatre Company presents
   
Labour & Leisure
   
Written by Joe Orton
Directed by
Ray Kasper and Robert Tobin
at Heartland Studio, 7016 N. Glenwood (map)
through Dec 11  |  tickets: $12   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Swinging into Christmas pageant season, few shows currently playing are as relevant or timely as AstonRep Theatre Company’s remount of lesser-known Joe Orton works under the title Labour & Leisure. Orton is best known for savaging hypocritical middle class morality in Entertaining Mr. Sloane and What the Butler Saw. One finds his queer eye at work in both of AstonRep’s twin productions The Good and Faithful Servant, directed by Ray Kasper, and The Erpingham Camp, directed by Robert Tobin. But his blue-collar origins in Leicester and a six-month stint in jail, for hilariously defacing library books, schooled Orton well in the corrupt hypocrisies of capitalist civilization. What better Christmas present could jobless Chicagoans give themselves (besides a job) than a gander at these miniature productions, with a few well-placed caveats, of course?

Erpingham-Hysterical-Eileen-WebThe Heartland Studio is a merciless black box. Kasper’s direction and Jeremiah Barr’s scenic design don’t really resolve the difficulties of setting apart clean and recognizable scene spaces in The Good and Faithful Servant. The cast struggles to ensure smooth transitions from scene to scene, but to no avail. At least Mrs. Vealfoy (Amy Kasper), one of the upper echelons of “the firm,” has a fine perch from which to dominate any hapless individual who enters her lair.

Thankfully, not just Mrs. Vealfoy, but Amy Kasper dominates the show. Kasper knows how to give her ruthless corporate villainess just the right touch of flirtatious charm. So whether she is ordering about the meek and deferential (read: enslaved) Buchanan (Jeff McVann), drawing Debbie (Sara Greenfield) into her schemes, or roping Ray (John Collins) under her oppressive wings, one feels the emotional compulsion to go along with whatever she wants. Only the strong survive in this world. The weak get black lung and a flaming toaster for 45 years of life-sapping service.

McVann, as Buchanan, is terribly strong in his comic portrayal of the stiffed working stiff. His opening scene, where Buchanan prosaically reunites with his long lost love Edith (Barbara Button), is a model of comic understatement. Button makes an excellent and charming comic partner. However, slips in dialect from her and other cast members adversely impact their performances. Greenfield does a humorous turn in both plays as an excessively pregnant young woman, but her pairing with Collins doesn’t match the strong comic connections formed between McVann and Button. Collins himself needs to bring a little more punk to his role as Ray, even if his working class roué ultimately capitulates to the firm in the end.

Erpingham-Press-1-WebThe cast of The Erpingham Camp fairs much better, if for no other reason than they get to work in less cumbersome space. Ms. Vealfoy’s perch is preserved for Mr. Erpingham (Jeff McVann), the ruler . . . uh . . . owner of this eponymous recreational resort. Here, McVann gives us pompous, self-absorbed, dictatorial asshole with both barrels, while the ill-used Chief Redcoat Riley (Kipp Moorman) sucks up to his boss in order to win the job of entertainment director during the camp’s evening entertainments. At first, Mr. Erpingham refuses. He has a much better suck-up, both figuratively and literally, in the otherwise absurdly useless Padre (Ray Kasper), the camp’s resident man of the cloth.

Nevertheless, Riley finally wins his favorite position when the camp’s entertainment director dies and no one else can fill his place. Entertainment at Erpingham Camp relies on the exuberant, if pedestrian, talents of buxom Jessie Mason (Charlie Casino) and nervous W. E. Harrison (John Collins). As for the victims/campers, Ted (Ian Knox) and Lou (Kathleen Lawlor) make for perfect conservative professional twits matched against the ultra-pregnant Eileen (Sara Greenfield) and her muscular, doltish working class husband, Kenny (Johnny Garcia).

Of course, Riley fucks it up and, of course, his fuck-up leads to a camp revolt of epic proportions. I’m just grateful that he made “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling” as gay as possible before the revolution.

In the wake of revolt, Mr. Erphingham and his pal, the Padre, come across like Hitler and his entourage in their last days in the bunker. Their pronouncements on art, religion, order and the classes are distinctly funny. Heaven only knows why they think they still have control of things, but the revolutionaries are not much better. Ted and Lou seem to think they can run this revolt using the civil defense handbook, while Kenny only needs to apotheosize his pregnant wife to justify tearing the camp down.

However, the award for best insanity of the night goes to Moorman, for impeccably delivering, as Riley, the most beautifully ridiculous and untruthful eulogy for Mr. Erpingham. Even for the little guy, there comes a moment of vindication.

   
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

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Production Personnel

Cast: Barbara Button, Charlie Cascino, John Collins, Johnny Garcia, Sara Greenfield, Amy Kasper, Ray Kasper, Ian Knox, Kathleen Lawlor, Jeff McVann, and Kipp Moorman.

Production Team: Direction by Ray Kasper and Robert Tobin, Stage Management by Samantha Barr. Set, lighting, and prop design by Jeremiah Barr. Fight choreography by Charlie Cascino. Graphic Design by Lea Tobin.

     
     

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REVIEW: Messiah on the Frigidaire (Hubris Productions)

Faith among the desperate

Messiah 3

 
Hubris Productions presents
 
Messiah on the Frigidaire
 
Written by John Culbertson
Directed by Dennis Frymire
Greenhouse Theater Center, 2257 N. Lincoln (map)
through April 17th (more info)

reviewed by Paige Listerud

The fervid religiosity of the American South suffers so much parody and lampoon it’s a wonder to find any comedy based on it that won’t bog down in cliché and 2-dimensional stereotype. But playwright John Culbertson shows a real feel for his subject. With Messiah on the Frigidaire, he demonstrates enough quick-witted familiarity to zing the zaniness of belief, while compassionately allowing his Messiah 2 characters the room to doubt, despair, and grow. Hubris Productions opens its fourth season at Greenhouse Theater Center with this gentle and astute play. Director Dennis Frymire and cast zealously realize its delicate balance between the hilarity of flamboyant religious showmanship and the loneliness of true dark nights of the soul.

Chief among lost souls is Lou Ann Hightower (Kim Boler)–facing a series of dead ends in her marriage, her blue-collar life, and her church. That might just look like tough times on anyone else. However, Lou Ann is also losing her faith, which for her is like slowly being drained of life’s blood. Luckily, she has a comforting sounding board in her friend and next-door neighbor, Betsy Gridley (Laura Rauh), the happily married ex-slut of Elroy, South Carolina. Lou Ann can confide to Betsy about the estrangement between her and her husband, Dwayne (Aaron Sjoholm), which has occurred under the strain of going nowhere fast. Betsy can still find joy in the streetlights as they come on in the evening, but Lou Ann finds her dreams and Dwayne’s suffocating in the confines of the trailer park.

Yet the Lord works in mysterious and/or obvious ways. In a premature attempt at topiary sculpture, another neighbor’s child has hacked away at one of Lou Ann’s trees. Light from the street lamps projects through its jagged branches, casting a shadow upon the Frigidaire on Lou Ann’s front porch, revealing–the face of Jesus! (Or Willie Nelson, take your choice.) Always thinking, husband Dwayne immediately perceives the monetary value of generating crowds to come view the new icon.

The trouble is, everyone else in town sees the monetary value, too—from the Reverend Hodges (Jeff McVann), who tells Lou Ann she doesn’t “fit in” to his church, to Elroy’s bank president Larry Williamson (Jack Birdwell) who denied Dwayne the loan to open a video store, but set up his own cousin with Dwayne’s idea. Culbertson is quite smart in the the numorous ways he highlights Elroy’s class dynamics. But he is also very conscious about the way it wreaks havoc with Lou Ann’s delicate conscience. Lou Ann may be more Christian than the church she’s been thrown out of or even the believers that show up on her property, but that doesn’t necessarily make her any happier.

Messiah 1

Frymire maintains the possibility of hope by snuggly weaving the relationships between Lou Ann and Betsy, and Lou Ann and Dwayne. Boler’s performance quietly, profoundly reaches to the solitary longing in Lou Ann’s soul but it also exposes Lou Ann’s simple, open acceptance of other people in their beliefs, no matter how wacky. Sjoholm’s Dwayne is a wily but frustrated good guy—chomping at the bit to make good on his dreams; only needing someone, especially Lou Ann, to believe in him. As Betsy, Rauh never goes overboard with the fun and friendly sluttiness—just enough to make her casual and comfortable in her own skin, never enough to overwhelm the friendship between Betsy and Lou Ann.

Even the “bad guys” get a bit of sympathy in their interpretation. Reverend Hodges may be the douchiest of douche bag preachers, but McVann’s performance also gives the impression that he is almost always on the point of obsequiously apologizing to someone. Birdwell portrays Larry Williamson with light, Southern college boy charm, masking the teeth he has underneath just long enough before he needs them.

This is one of those productions where the set should really live up to the quality of the storytelling. John Whittington makes the most of the cramped studio space available, but it still shows a flat, 2-dimensional quality. That might be fine if these were comic book characters—but they are not and the acting is not. Humane portrayals of flawed, human characters deserve humane, if not royal surroundings.

 
Rating: ★★★½
 

Review: Village Players’ “You Can’t Take It With You”

You Can't Take It With You

 Village Players Theater presents

You Can’t Take It With You

by George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart
directed by Jack Hickey
runs through Nov. 22 (ticket info)

reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

take-it-with-you During hard times, people seek the warmth of the well-known, the solace of childhood memory and happier days. In dining, that means comfort food. The stage equivalent — comfort theater, if you will — arises in low-risk revivals.

So, this season has seen Animal Crackers at the Goodman Theatre, a revival of a 1928 Marx Brothers comedy.  Porchlight Theatre did The Fantasticks, that long-running off-Broadway favorite. Marriott Theatre revived Hairspray, a 2002 Broadway hit based on a 1988 cult film set in 1962. And so on.

George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart‘s quirky You Can’t Take It With You needs no economic crisis to be worth a remount. Although this 1937 Pulitzer Prize winner certainly shows its origins in the Great Depression, You Can’t Take It With You is one of the funniest and most endearing plays of the 20th century. The New York Times’ Brooks Atkinson called the original production "tickling fun," and so it remains.

Everyone should know this play. If you’ve never seen it, take advantage of Village Players‘ fine production in Oak Park.

A little acquaintance with 1930s popular history will enrich your experience, but it’s by no means required. Some understanding of the times in which the play was written may be needed to surmount 21st-century sensibilities, though for its period, You Can’t Take It With You seems quite progressive.

The farce follows the eccentric Sycamore family. Grandpa Martin Vanderhof (Paul Tinsley), the retired patriarch, has spent 35 years going to college commencements, collecting snakes and avoiding income tax.

His daughter, Penelope (Judith Laughlin), has spent the past eight years engaged in writing never-finished plays. Penny’s husband, Paul Sycamore (Errol McLendon), manufactures fireworks in the basement with help from the family’s lodger, Mr. DePinna (Eric Cowgill). Housekeeper Rheba (Elana Elyce), serves up dinners of corn flakes, watermelon and mystery meat and entertains her unemployed boyfriend, Donald (Ronaldo Coxon), overnight.

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Granddaughter Essie (Zoe Palko) makes candies for sale but spends every spare moment practicing, unsuccessfully, to be a ballerina. As her boisterous Russian dance teacher, Boris Kolenkhov (Jeff McVann), puts it, "She stinks." Essie’s husband, Ed Carmichael (Josh Wintersteen), prints up unlikely circulars on a hobby letterpress and plays the xylophone.

The most conventional member of the clan, granddaughter Alice (Jhenai Mootz), a secretary, is in love with her boss’s son, Tony Kirby (Bryan Wakefield), though she fears her beloved but trying family won’t pass muster with his stuffy, Wall Street father (James Turano) and snobbish socialite mother (Katherine Keberlein). Also drifting through the scenes are an irritated IRS investigator (Michael M. Jones), a couple of G-men (Jones and Anthony Collaro), a drunken actress and the Russian Grand Duchess Olga Katrina (Courtney Boxwell).

They don’t write plays like this one anymore.

Village Players’ whole cast and crew merit kudos for this nicely presented ensemble piece. Director Jack Hickey paces his actors well, keeping things moving and the comedy coming. As Grandpa, Tinsley is perhaps overly laconic, but Laughlin does an especially sweet job as Penny, and Palko is wonderfully zany as Essie. Coxon offers some rare comic turns as Donald, as well.

Ricky Lurie‘s effective period costumes deserve mention, too, particularly Essie’s absurd ballet bloomers.

It’s tickling fun!

Rating: «««

 

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