Review: Hickorydickory (Chicago Dramatists)

  
  

Despite inconsistencies, provocative tale sets mind reeling

  
  

Joanne Dubach, Thomas Gebbia and Gail Rastorfer in a scene from "Hickorydickory" by Marisa Wegrzyn, directed by Russ Tutterow. (Photo credit: Chicago Dramatists)

      
Chicago Dramatists presents
   
  
Hickorydickory
   
   
Written by Marisa Wegrzyn
Directed by Russ Tutterow
at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through June 12  | 
tickets: $32  |  more info

Reviewed Catey Sullivan

In Hickorydickory, Chicago playwright Marisa Wegrzyn has penned a piece with the potential for becoming a mind-bending, provocative black comedy. With bloody and disturbing – and bloody disturbing – finesse, she spins a story that’s part smart dysfunctional family comedy, part coming-of-age drama and part gore-packed thriller.

But – and this is a significant “but” – Hickorydickory in many ways still feels like an early draft rather than a polished, finished product. Clocking in at a few minutes under three hours, it is in serious need of editing. Moreover, Wegrzyn keeps the rules she establishes for her fantasy sci-fi-esque tale of mortality in place only so long as they suit the plot. That means Hickorydickory is marred by false crises. Imagine the story of Rapunzel – girl trapped in an inaccessible tower, prince faced with the challenge of accessing it – but instead of ending with a creative solution involving a hair ladder, happily-ever-after is achieved when the prince suddenly realizes he can fly. Even in the worlds of fantasy, magic and sci-fi, the parameters need to be consistent for the dramatic tension to hold.

Hickorydickory’s chief strength lies in Wegrzyn’s ability to merge the ordinary with the fantastical. Her characters are people you know, a relatable, middle-class family forced to contend with situations one would expect to see wizards or sorcerers or elves in. It’s not really magical realism. Hickorydickory isn’t awash in dreamscapes and phantasms. Instead, it shows the everyday nuts, bolts and blood of living with something that just happens to defy the rules of science and the space-time continuum.

Director Russ Tutterow deftly merges both the ordinariness and the mind-blowing fairy tale-esque elements of Hickorydickory. Early on, the worlds of the real and the surreal clash with an impact that elicits laughter and gasps in the same moment. Attempting to repair an old pocket watch, a watch repair apprentice carefully opens the shiny antique – and gets an eyeful of blood when a crimson geyser spews from he workings. It’s an extraordinary event in an ordinary moment, powerfully realized.

Thoas Gebbia and Gail Rastorfer in a scene from "Hickorydickory" by Marisa Wegrzyn, directed by Russ Tutterow. (Photo credit: Chicago Dramatists)

Clearly, we’re not dealing with Swatches here. Third-generation (at least) clock and watch repairer Jimmy (Thomas Gebbia) specializes in a very particular brand: Mortal clocks. As Jimmy and his wife Kate (Gail Rastorfer) explain with exposition that is seamlessly woven into Wegrzyn’s conversational dialogue, mortal clocks reveal the precise moment – and cause – of their owner’s death. Most people are unaware of their mortal clocks, but every once in a great while someone is tragically born with their mortal clock lodged in the brain instead in its proper place behind the heart. Those unfortunate souls are burdened with knowing when, where and how they will die. Along with that heavy knowledge, they are continually subjected to a relentless tick-tocking countdown toward that final, fatal moment.

Life with this birth defect isn’t living, laments Jimmy’s 17-year-old daughter Dale (Cathlyn Melvin), it’s dying. And Dale is doubly burdened – first with the knowledge of her death’s date, and second with the fact that although she’s only a senior at New Trier, the date is imminent. Her life is a death march, her doom quite literally weighing on her mind.

Dale’s escape from the torturous ticking lies at the center of Wegrzyn’s plot. In flashbacks, we meet Dale’s teenage parents and learn the traumatic circumstances that led to her clock becoming misplaced. We also learn the lore of mortal clockery, much of it kept in a tome that looks, appropriately, like something out of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It’s in the user’s manual that Wegrzyn falters. As two generations of clock shop owners assert, the years allotted by a mortal clock are inalterable. Or at least they are until someone conveniently finds a timely exception.

Hickorydickory is marred by inconsistencies in aging as well. Some people with mortal clocks (Dale’s grandmother, Helen) stop aging at a seemingly random point, while others age normally. On a similar note: Dale’s father Jimmy is supposed to be in his early-mid 30s but looks to be in his 50s. Since the math of their ages plays an important role in the plot, his premature aging is a tad distracting.

And for all Hickorydickory’s need of editing, Wegrzyn leaves some tantalizing issues curiously unexamined. Dale’s mother Cari Lee (Joanne Dubach) doesn’t age. Unlike Helen, Cari Lee’s arrested development is explained. But how does a person trapped at 17 survive for decades? Cari Lee is a sort of female Peter Pan, trying to live outside the cocoon of Neverland. But beyond making her a spoiled, immature brat who becomes irritating after her first scene, Wegrzyn fails to plumb Cari Lee’s psychology – or explain why she hasn’t been accused by her neighbors of being a vampire. Another hole: Characters occasionally bump into younger versions of themselves, even though there’s never any indication that mortal clocks can conjure up living, corporeal flashbacks.

Still, Hickorydickory sets the mind reeling with its implications. And the cast, many of them playing two roles, is solid. As Dale and the young incarnation of Kate, Melvin is terrific. She ably captures both Dale’s profound inner sadness at knowing when she’s destined to die and the tough, sarcastic outer exterior she dons to cope with that sadness. Rastorfer is capable as Dale’s loving stepmother Kate, although as Dale’s grandmother Helen she’s rather like Norma Desmond swanning through an especially grandiose audition – which is to say, more melodramatically suited to a silent movie than a realistic drama.

The other wonderfully realized aspect of Hickorydickory is Simon Lashford’s detailed set. Crammed with every imaginable kind of clock – grandfathers down to pocket watches – it’s an emporium where it feels like the past truly lives alongside the present. Barry Bennett’s original music is an evocative mix of echo-ey strings and delicate percussive ticks. If the passage of time made a sound, this would be it.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Chicago Dramatists’ Hickorydickory continues through June 12th at their performance space, 1105 W. Chicago (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $32, and can be purchased from their online box office. For more information, go to chicagodramatists.org.

  

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REVIEW: Bordello (Chicago Dramatists)

  
  

Superbly cast and acted, ‘Bordello’ exposes a claustrophobic world

  
 

Dana Black, Melissa Canciller, Joanne Dubach, Ariana Dziedzic, Marguerite Hammersley, Katherine Keberlein, Kyra Morris - in 'Bordello' at Chicago Dramatists.

   
Chicago Dramatists presents
  
Bordello
  
Written by Aline Lathrop
Directed by
Meghan Beals McCarthy
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
thru March 6  |  tickets: $32  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

If prostitution is performance, then Aline Lathrop’s world premiere play, Bordello, at Chicago Dramatists gives audiences a backstage pass to the reality of sex workers at a legal Nevada brothel. Director Meghan Beals McCarthy drives Lathrop’s intricate, tightly woven script forward with beautifully humanized performances from a taut all-woman ensemble. The show opens with the women lined up to present their hooker aliases during the bordello’s yearly “customer appreciation night.” But what happens in the front of the house stands in sharp contrast to the stark reality these women reveal in the break room, where they unglamorously dress down in t-shirts, sports bras, exercise pants and bathrobes.

A scene from 'Bordello' by Aline Lathrop, playing at Chicago Dramatists.Far from being a source of titillation, Bordello is a study in claustrophobia. Each character’s individual circumstances restrict her as surely as the bordello’s bizarrely regulated sex work environment. Indeed, the women call their workplace “Pussy Penitentiary.” No phone calls allowed from Thursday through Saturday. No privacy in their rooms since locks on the doors are forbidden. Every room is bugged. Of what they earn, 50% goes to the house; 20% goes to transportation if the johns take a cab all the way from Vegas. Even though they live at the bordello and pay its overhead, meals are $7. Further restricting their liberty is the fact that so many work for a pimp outside the brothel. Indeed, “Who’s your pimp?” becomes the first question asked of a new inmate. Finally, there’s the bell that summons the women to the line-up like a cattle call.

Like all good prison dramas, once it’s been established how thoroughly the characters are controlled, how they attempt to control and upstage each other becomes the central dynamic. Sisterhood isn’t terribly powerful in Lathrop’s drama—an extremely depressing thought, considering all the other conditions the women endure. But Lathrop’s dialogue is tough, fast-paced, and humorous as well as cutting. As much as the characters jealously defend their place in the bordello’s hierarchy—particularly with regard to Andy, the owner–they also exhibit tremendous vulnerability and capacity for nurturing in the middle of a dog-eat-dog environment.

It would be difficult to find more well cast production. Joanne Dubach plays Kitten for all the heartbreak the role has in store, turned out by her pimp Jimmy at 11, now struggling to find her way at the bordello at 18. Katherine Keberlin plays Jewell, the bordello’s porn star celebrity, with tough and glorious panache. Dana Black’s rendering of Mandy seals her problem child attitude with spontaneous vulnerability. Her relationship with the sharp and sassy Lotus (Melissa Canciller) is an inspired choice. Ariana Dziedzic strikes the right note of desperate and exploited co-dependency as Michelle. Kyra Morris’ Godiva, an Iraq War veteran, is rendered with fierce assurance and nuanced cracks in her otherwise strong facade. Honey (Marguerite Hammersley) warmly and sensually rounds out the cast as the older working girl of the bunch.

If there is any criticism to be made, it’s the way the playwright structures a mystery she’s planted within the plotline. At one point, razor blades are discovered in one prostitute’s bar of soap and the break room becomes tense over who among the women planted them there. But it’s a mystery that becomes lost in the interplay of the women’s lives. By the time the real culprit is revealed in the second act, the discovery lacks impact and the play’s ending cuts short of any time to consider its ramifications for the characters involved. A little editing to build foreshadowing and suspense would make for a more united, cohesive and compelling drama.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
  

Bordello at Chicago Dramatists - legs

 

Aritists:

CAST: Dana Black, Melissa Canciller, Joanne Dubach, Ariana Dziedzic, Chicago Dramatists Associate Artist Marguerite Hammersley, Katherine Keberlein, Kyra Morris

PRODUCTION: Set Design by Marianna Csaszar, Sound Design by Victoria DeIorio, Costume Design by Christine Pascual, Lighting Design by Jeff Pines, and Props Design by Jenniffer J. Thusing.

  
  

REVIEW: The Invasion of Skokie (Chicago Dramatists)

Kibitzing with Gentiles and Nazis in Suburbia

 

(L-R) Bradford Lund, Mick Weber, and Michael Joseph Mitchell star in Steven Peterson’s world premiere production of The Invasion of Skokie, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., running 09/2-10/10/10, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Information about the show at www.chicagodramatists.org and 312-633-0630.  Photo by Jeff Pines.

   
Chicago Dramatists presents
   
The Invasion of Skokie
   
Written by Steven Peterson
Directed by
Richard Perez
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through October 10th  |  tickets:  $32  |   more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

It’s 1978. The preservation of the Jewish heritage is threatened by neo-Nazis and a Gentile boy. Chicago Dramatists presents the world premiere of The Invasion of Skokie by playwright Steven Peterson. The Nazis have won their U.S. Supreme Court case and plan to hold a march in Skokie, a Chicago suburb. Skokie has a large Jewish community that includes Holocaust survivors. On the eve of the supremacy parade, a Jewish family gathers for a typical Shabbat dinner. Or is it typical? Shabbat has been shifted to Saturday. The goy-next-door wants to marry into the Chosen People. Dad is negotiating an arms deal with terrorists. Mom made sun tea! An ordinary family debates traditional and liberal forces infiltrating the homogeneous community. The Invasion of Skokie is Fiddler on the Roof meets “Schlinder’s List” without the music or killing. For a religious culture surviving slavery, persecution and genocide, the Jewish people must now face their toughest opponent, love!

(L-R) Tracey Kaplan and Bradford Lund star in Steven Peterson’s world premiere production of The Invasion of Skokie, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., running 09/2-10/10/10, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Information about the show at www.chicagodramatists.org and 312-633-0630.  Photo by Jeff Pines.Playwright Steven Peterson and Director Richard Perez create a relatable homeland security threat. Dinner is overlapping conversations with generous helpings of tension and a side of ranch dressing diversion. In the lead, Mick Weber (Morry) drives the action with loud declarations and Nazi hate crime hate. Weber delivers a memorable patriarch performance from bull-headed fearless to vulnerable fearful. Weber’s anguish, in an final scene, is a haunting visual.  His match is Cindy Gold (Sylvia). As a Jewish stereotypical mother, Gold is funny pushing food for whatever the ailment or disagreement. Below the surface, Gold reaches gold with poignant musings over day lilies and marrying for life. Tracey Kaplan (Debbie) is the liberal, vegetarian, lawyer daughter. Kaplan and Weber spar with perfect father-daughter opposition. Although the issues are contemporary, the angst is deep rooted in their personal histories. Representing the ‘superior race’ notion, the blond and blue-eyed Bradford R. Lund (Charlie) is charming as a goy-in-love. Despite multiple reasons to flee, Lund is earnest in his willingness to stay. With Nazis in town and family feuding, comedy relief is a necessity. Arriving a week late for dinner, Michael Joseph Mitchell (Howie) is hilarious as the clueless dinner guest.

The Invasion of Skokie is a glimpse at a not-so-familiar but important moment in history. From the picturesque backyard patio (designer Grant Sabin) of suburbia, a Jewish family deals with menacing Nazis and Gentiles rallying against the tranquility.

An important moment in history – but is it still relevant? Today, when same sex marriages are at the forefront of controversy, is inter-religious marriages that big of a deal? This seems like a simplistic question that has an easy answer. The Invasion of Skokie magnificently represents multiple sides to the attacks on the Jewish heritage in 1978. Even now, I’m certain the debate continues. How to preserve 2010+ years of customs and history? Tradition, Tradition, tradition. Even as a shiksa, I get it!

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

(L-R) Mick Weber and Cindy Gold star in Steven Peterson’s world premiere production of The Invasion of Skokie, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave.,  running 09/2-10/10/10, Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Information about the show at www.chicagodramatists.org and 312-633-0630.  Photo by Jeff Pines.

Running Time: Two hours includes a ten minute intermission

Steven Peterson’s world premiere production of The Invasion of Skokie, at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago Ave., runs through October 10th – Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 PM and Sundays at 3 PM. Information about the show at www.chicagodramatists.org and 312-633-0630.  For information on parking, go to www.chicagodramatists.org/parking

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REVIEW: Jade Heart (Chicago Dramatists)

‘Jade Heart’ needs more pulse


Jade Heart 3

 
Chicago Dramatists presents
 
Jade Heart
 
by Will Cooper
directed by
Russ Tutterow
at
Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through May 30th tickets: $25-$30  | more info

by Barry Eitel

Will Cooper calls himself an “accidental” playwright. Apparently, he took a playwriting course after his wife paid for one but couldn’t go. In a rare case of fortune smiling upon someone, the folks at Chicago Dramatists liked his stuff and decided to give him a full production. That’s how Jade Heart was born. The play explores mother/daughter relationships of all shades, centering on a Chinese girl that was Jade Heart 1 adopted by an American woman. Unfortunately, the uneven show doesn’t really cover any new territory.

Jade Heart brings up all sorts of questions about identity, culture, nationality, and family. We flash forwards and backwards through the life of Jade (Christine Timbol Bunuan), as she struggles to connect her past with her present. Jade, you see, was abandoned at birth by her unknown Chinese family, probably a result of the one-child policy enacted in 1979. While she was an infant, she was adopted by American single mom Brenda (Ginger Lee McDermott). Most of the play involves Jade interacting with Brenda and her imaginary Chinese mother, along with the more basic challenges of growing up. Wheeler’s argument gets pretty repetitive; throughout the piece, others identify Jade as Chinese-American, and she constantly rebukes them and claims that she is only American. While this is a valid question and an interesting look at national and cultural identity, the subject gets popped into far too many conversations. If these were condensed down, the play would probably be 20 minutes shorter at least. Another repetitive debate dropped throughout the play is the status of Brenda and Jade’s relationship. How exactly is Brenda a mother? And how does she relate to Jade’s actual birth mother living out in rural China? Again, important questions, but they get dulled down by overuse in the script. Wheeler’s script revolves around a few points, and the production wears them all down by the end instead of throwing in new and exciting information. Although there are some interesting expressionistic touches, such as Jade’s discussions with her masked (imaginary) biological mother, as a whole the play comes off as stale and clichéd.

Not that there aren’t some touching performances in Chicago Dramatists’ production. Bunuan is cute and charismatic. She charms the audience into joining her on her journey. McDermott does a fine job, too, though she gets sort of cheated by the script. We get the vague idea that she is a good mother, but we never see much of the happy times. We witness plenty of sobs and racist/xenophobic tirades, but not a whole lot of a healthy mother-daughter relationship. McDermott commits fully to the role and finds the love where she can, but there just aren’t enough scenes showing us why we should care if Jade and Brenda can connect. These two women are given a fair amount of support by the other actors on-stage. Gordon Chow, for example, pulls double-duty as Jade’s love interest and masked Chinese tour guide, giving both characters life.

Russ Tutterow’s direction keeps the show moving. Nothing really lags here, even though Wheeler often writes in circles. The play does get a push towards the second act, and it finally feels like we are covering new territory. Some of the abstract choices make the world interesting as well; the dialogues between Jade and the mom in her mind are probably the most innovative part of the script and production. Unfortunately, even though the Jade Heart sets itself some very important narratives (identity, culture, assimilation) it doesn’t say anything new about any of them. Everyone involved attempts to drive the story forward, but there just isn’t a whole lot to hook onto.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Jade Heart 2

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