Review: Heddatron (Sideshow Theatre)

  
  

A mechanical masterpiece in the Steppenwolf garage

  
 

Nina O'Keefe in Heddatron - Sideshow Theatre

  
Sideshow Theatre presents
  
Heddatron
  
Written by Elizabeth Meriweather
Directed by Jonathan L. Green
at Steppenwolf Garage Theatre, 1624 N. Halsted (map)
through April 24  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

Steppenwolf’s 2nd-annual Garage Rep Series offers three burgeoning storefront theaters the opportunity to mount a production in one of the city’s prime locations, and Sideshow Theatre’s stunning Heddatron establishes the company as an important, unique voice in the Chicago stage scene. A technical marvel, the show features ten fully functioning robots working in conjunction with an ensemble of nine actors, and the results are both hilarious and startlingly profound. Elizabeth Meriweather’s script initially follows three storylines: depressed, pregnant Michigan housewife Jane Gordon (Nina O’Keefe) reads Hedda Gabler on her couch, her husband Rick (Matt Fletcher) and daughter Nugget (Catherine Stegemann) search for her after she A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre.mysteriously disappears, and Hedda Gabler playwright Henrik Ibsen (Robert Koon) creates his tragic masterpiece.

The three stories weave together beautifully with great comedic transitions by the 10-year old Stegemann, and when they converge, the production achieves a moment of transcendence that reminded me of visiting Disneyland for the first time as a child. All the elements – sound, lights, acting, robots – are perfectly calibrated for maximum wonderment, and the production shifts from clever social critique to technological hyper-parody. Director Jonathan L. Green and his team of designer have crafted an outstanding multi-sensory experience, as Christopher M. LaPorte’s sound design builds tension to the reveal of the full grandeur of Lili Stoessel’s set and Jordan Kardasz’s lighting: the Robot Forest. This is where Jane Gordon will be forced to read Hedda Gabler with her robotic co-stars as the play’s creator watches on, stunned at the results.

Meriweather’s plot isn’t logical, but Green and his ensemble of actors have found the reality underneath these characters’ extraordinary circumstances to make the play rise above its face comedic value. The play begins with O’Keefe having already been on stage, in that same couch, for about fifteen minutes as the audience takes their seats. I don’t know if that’s in the script or not, but it really helps hammer the character’s crippling ennui. She doesn’t speak for the first twenty minutes of the play, and has to get on stage before the audience is even full? No wonder she’s bored. When Jane finally speaks, they are not her words, but Hedda Gabler’s, as she reads from the book that mysteriously fell into her room.

The three storylines all feature relatively ordinary main characters surrounded by spectacular supporting players. The soft-spoken, contemplative Ibsen has to put up with a harpy of a wife (Jennifer Matthews), a sex-kitten maid (Jennifer Shine), and a deranged nymphomaniac August Strindberg (Brian Grey). Rick and his daughter Nugget are teamed up with an insane small arms dealer named Cubby (Andy Luther) and an acne-ridden Big Bang Theory-styled film student (Nate Wheldon). And Jane has all those awesome, awesome robots. I could put few more awesomes in there, because these robots are not only technologically breathtaking, but have amazing comedic timing and design. My favorite robo-moment is when Auntjuliebot (I love that I get to type that!) is asked to sit down. Hilarity ensues, made all the better by the machine’s completely emotionless line delivery.

     
Nina O'Keefe - Sideshow Theatre - Heddatron A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre.
A scene from Elizabeth Meriweather's 'Heddatron', presented by Chicago's Sideshow Theatre. Hedatron - robot in the snow

While the robots serve a largely comedic function in the play, they also represent the mechanical, repetitive nature of domestic life. When Jane is kidnapped, she is in a place that is completely new and exciting, where she has no responsibilities, no lists of things to do, and she is finally able to release her emotions through her character. There’s nothing to suggest in the script that Jane is familiar with Hedda Gabler, or even if she goes to the theater, and O’Keefe’s reading of Hedda has a great uncertainty to it. As she is pressured to continue, Hedda takes over Jane, and O’Keefe is able to actually get into Ibsen’s character, capturing Hedda’s emotional instability with a vigor that made me eager to see what O’Keefe would really do in the role.

Hedda, Jane, and Ibsen are all living human beings in a world of robots, characters programmed to achieve maximum irritability, ecstasy, or even cuteness. Hedda and Jane don’t want to play a part anymore, and while Hedda ultimately gets her escape, Jane is forced back on the track, another pill-popping cog in the suburban machine. The play ends with a cameo from a Hollywood actress known for her stirring portrayals of distressed middle-aged women, a tear-filled tribute that gets big laughs, but also speaks to the play’s deeper themes. The ability to find emotional truth in the midst of absurdity is the sign of great comedy, and Heddatron is gifted with a cast and team that know just where to look.

  
  
Rating: ★★★★
  
  

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REVIEW: Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer

  
  

The Queer Meaning of Christmas: Always Be Yourself

  
  

Rudolph finale by David as Joan

  
Hell in a Handbag Productions presents
   
Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer
   
Book/Lyrics by David Cerda 
Music by
David Cerda w/ Scott Lamberty
Directed by
Derek Czaplewski
at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark (map)
through Jan 1  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Hell In a Handbag Productions have run their queerlicious holiday spoof, Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer for 13 years, yet it’s Christmas theme could not be more current or relevant than if it were written yesterday. Directed by Derek Czaplewski, this Santa Claus (Michael Hampton) is as Scrooge as they come, running the North Pole like a sweatshop. His terrorized elf population scrambles for job security since he’s outsourced most of the toy manufacturing to India. To generate extra income, Santa cynically develops a series of reality TV Mrs. Claus loses her balance. by David as Joanshows for NPN (North Pole Network). Sam the Snowman (Christopher Carpenter) lays out the whole scene with casual and realistic world-weariness, just right for this particular recessionary season.

Into this milieu, Jane (Danni Smith) and Tom Donner (Chad) give birth to Rudolph (Alex Grelle), a sweet little reindeer with an instinctual love for feminine attire. Fresh from the womb, Rudolph can already spot Chanel and Prada on other women and lusts in his heart to wear them himself. But mom and dad fear gender non-conformity just won’t go over well in the gossipy and economically strapped environs of Christmastown. So, they force Rudolph into overalls and trot him out to the reindeer games to put a little butch into his act.

The big butch of the reindeer games, Coach Comet (David Besky), uses his position to put the moves on his young reindeer charges. But, like any classic closet case, he – like everyone else – rejects Rudolph when his unstoppable femme side emerges. While reviling base hypocrisy is de rigueur element for LGBTQ comedy, Hell in a Handbag’s spry and professional cast keeps to the situation fresh, the jokes well-timed and humanely on message. David Cerda’s humorous script holds up fabulously well; it helps that the original Christmas cartoon is also about being yourself, no matter what societal pressures deny who and what you are. Cerda and crew boost the original cartoon with a ton of salacious queer fun and Brigitte Ditmars’ choreography makes the most of a tight stage at Mary’s Attic.

     
Trailer Trash Barbie by David as Joan Meet Coach Comet by David as Joan
The Dragbeast! The Abominable Dragbeast (David Cerda, center) massacre's a Lady Gag_0007 North Pole Smackdown by David as Joan

Rudolph loses the town’s support but gains a reindeer girlfriend, Clarice (Jennifer Shine), who regales the audience with how HOT his red hose make her. Then there’s Rudolph’s ally Herbie, the elf who wants to be a dentist, who Dan Hickey executes with nostalgic and dorky perfection. Once this pair make it to the Island of Misfit Toys, the audience not only gets to revel in Chad’s exact portrayal of Charlie-in-the-Box, but also the Half-Naked Cowboy (Chad Ramsey), Trailer Trash Barbie (Terry McCarthy) and the Choo-Choo Train (Barbara Figgins) with square wheels.

That Cerda, as the Abominable Drag Beast, tries her grab at fame in a Gaga-esque meat dress, while Ed Jones goes beyond the beyond as Santa’s drunken wife, puts the cherry and nuts on top of Hell in a Handbag’s confection. It’s so bad it’s good for you. But most of all, for all its celebration of pervy practices, Rudolph, the Red-Hosed Reindeer restores a little innocent sweetness to a holiday made hard, jaded and meaningless by rampant commercialism. Always be yourself—that’s the best Christmas message I’ve heard in a long time and something meant to last the whole year round.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
   
   

Christmastown! by David as Joan

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REVIEW: Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer

Definitely not your father’s Rudolph

From left- Yukon Cornelia meets runaways Rudolph and Herbie (in Hell in a Handbag's Ruolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer. Photo credit- Rick Aguilar

Hell in a Handbag Productions presents:

Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer

 

Book and Lyrics by David Cerda
Music by David Cerda with Scott Lamberty
Directed by
Derek Czaplewski
At
Mary’s Attic (5400 N. Clark Street) thru January 2nd (ticket info)

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

From left- Rudolph, Yukon, and Herbiesee the Island of Misfit Toys in the distance in Hell in a Handbag's Ruolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer.Photo by Rick Aguilar A red panty-wearing reindeer, a boozy hag Mrs. Claus, and an elf with dental aspirations: two of these three character traits weren’t apparent in the traditional holiday classic. Hell in a Handbag Productions presents Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer, a parody on the children’s television show “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.” The campy story tells the struggles of Rudolph (Alex Grelle), a transvestite reindeer born to wear Chanel silk in a J.C. Penney overalls world. In its 12th year, David Cerda has updated his Christmas town misfits’ story with topical jokes about Michael Jackson, the Catholic Church and healthcare. Cerda has unwrapped his imagination to create back stories for the residents of Christmas Town: a pedophile reindeer coach, a tyrant money-hungry Santa, enslaved go-go dancing elves, and a cosmetic surgery drag-queen victim as the snow beast. Not quite the hot-cocoa-by-the-fireplace-on-a-snowy-evening, this Rudolph is more like tequila shots at the bar on a bitter cold night.

In any Hell in a Handbag production, Ed Jones transforms his small supporting role into huge laughs. As a drunken Mrs. Claus, Jones’ facial expressions are hysterical. Joined by Rudolph, Herbie (Chris Walsh), and Clarice (Jennifer Shine), Jones’ quartet belts out the catchy tune “Christmas Makes Me Bitter.” It’s the perfect melody for holiday commercialism burn-outs. The witty combination of the television show’s familiar moments mixed with the dark and disturbing create a warped alternative to the “It’s a Wonderful Life” crowd. Walsh (no relation) nails Herbie the elf in pitch and robotic movement. From the moment she steps on the stage, Lori Lee (Yukon Cornelia) becomes a hilarious version of the simpleton prospector. Her traveling destination song “I Don’t Know” is an amusing rendition of an Abbott-Costello ‘who’s on first’.

From left- Santa Claus, loses patience with flamboyant Rudolph as Score the Elf looks on in horror in Hell in a Handbag's Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer. Photo by Rick Aguilar The greedy capitalist, Santa Claus, threatens one of his elves ( to work faster or suffer the consequences in Hell in a Handbag Productions 'Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer' at Mary's Attic. Photo by Rick Aguilar-

Over the last several years, I’ve made three trips to Cerda’s Christmas Town. Like Christmas cookies, I like to sample all of them but I have my favorites. This production comes in third with some awkward pauses. It’s unclear if it’s new material or new actors mixing with veterans. Regardless, Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer is still a great escape from songs like “I’ll Have a Blue Christmas Without You” for the more realistic sentiment “They’ll Hate You If You’re Different.” The 2009 version may not be my favorite but it’s still a tasty holiday treat.

 

Rating: ★★★

 
Herbie, the 'not gay enough ' elf that has dreams of dentistry in Hell in a Handbag Production's Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer opening Dec. 5 at Mary's Attic. Photo by Rick Aguilar Score, the not so bright elf in Hell in a Handbag's Rudolph The Red-Hosed Reindeer. Photo by Rick Augilar

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