Review: Thieves Like Us (House Theatre of Chicago)

 

Predictable bank-robbing adventure is fun as heck

Thieves Like Us - House Theatre - Byrnes Bowers Hickey

   
The House Theatre of Chicago presents
 
Thieves Like Us
   
Written by Damon Kiely
Directed by Kimberly Senior

at Chopin Theatre,  1543 W. Division (map)
through October 30  |  
tickets: $25-$29  |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

House Theatre fans will be in their raucous comfort zone with the company’s latest action-packed production. Thieves Like Us is chock full of the House’s signature elements:  Retro-comic book storyline? Check. Old school siren whose vocal stylings punctuate the scenes? Check. Cops, robbers, dames and drunks? Yup. And where previous House productions have made ingenious use of actors striding across the stage carrying picture frames and pop-up books to evoke small towns, big cities and points in between, Thieves uses a similar technique with newspapers to illustrate the Dust Bowl surroundings of Bowie Bowers and his posse of stick-up men.

But even with its profoundly predictable ending (which pays homage and owes a debt to both Bonnie and Clyde and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Thieves Like Us  is a step up for the House. After bursting onto the scene in the early Aughts with an inspired, revisionist take on Peter Pan,  the House continued with variations on the theme of lost boys long enough to become repetitive. The particulars changed as the House churned out stories of Samarai, cowboys, wannabe rockstars, science nerds and flying cheerleaders (our review ★★★½) – but the core of each adventure remained the same: Adolescence is tough. Growing out of it is even tougher.  For a while, it seemed that their target audience was restricted to ‘tween boys.

thieves Like Us - House Theatre - posterThat demographic will love Thieves Like Us, no doubt. But Thieves, written by Damon Kiley and directed by Kimberly Senior also has enough smarts and wry self-awareness to make grownups smile as well. It’s hero – Bowie Bowers, Depression-era desperado driven to thieving because an honest Joe can’t catch a break in the Dust Bowl – is surely relatable to anybody who has felt the pinch of the current recession (which is to say, everybody).

We first meet our hero at hard labor on a prison somewhere south of the Mason-Dixon line – the locale being evident by the oozing-syrup Okie drawl everybody talks with. It’s mere moments before the first burst of cartoon violence breaks out as Bowie (John Byrnes), hardened convict Chicamaw (Shawn Pfautsch) and elder statesman T-Dub (Tom Hickey) make a break for it. Across the plains they go, knocking over banks and planning One Last Score so that all can retire, maybe in sunny May-hee-ko. There’s A Girl (of course), who is instrumental in convincing Bowie to give up the stick-ups and settle down to a quiet life “on the straight.”  But of course Bowie can’t do that until he makes that One Last Score. And but of course, the last heist goes spectacularly awry.

The plot may be less than innovative, but the Kiley’s dialogue and the ensemble’s zesty execution of it make it mighty entertaining.

As Bowie, Byrnes creates a man of simple wants and basic decency – all he wants is a clean start, Bowie keeps emphasizing, but of course that’s just not possible, no matter how much money he steals.

Senior elicits strong performances from her supporting cast as well, starting with Pfautsch’s Chicamaw, who comes close to stealing the show along with the loot from the vault. Pfautsch instills the violent, hard-drinking, hardened criminal  Chicamaw with an impish spark that’s part playful sprite and part psychopath. It’s hard to say which is dominant, and that’s part of the character’s dangerous, wild-eyed charisma. The third man in the gang is Hickey‘s T-Dub, the nominal brains of the group. Also memorable is Tim Curtis, who exudes sly, degenerate charm first as a retired hold-up man and later as an oily attorney.

As for the women in the cast, Chelsea Keenan radiates joy, lust and deliciously girlish immaturity as Lula, a good-time blonde who can turn a kitchen table into a dance floor faster than you can say Jack Robinson.  And as a one-woman Greek goddess of a Greek chorus, Beth Sagal’s torch song narration is as rich and velvety as fine chocolate.  Breathing life into the composer Kevin O’Donnell’s seductive melodies, she’s a showstopper whose perspective adds significant depth to the comic book veneer. As for Bowie’s gal, the “Pistol Princess” Cheechie, Paige Hoffman is an appropriately hard-nosed moll although her romance with Bowie isn’t especially believable – they seem to love each other only because conventional storytelling demands that the main gangster have a girl to complicate matters.

The adventures of Bowie Bowers might not be especially original. But they’re colorful and clever and entertaining as heck.

   
   
Rating: ★★½       
   
      

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REVIEW: Baal (TUTA Theatre)

   

It’s Bros before Ho’s, Brechtian Style

TUTA BAAL - #1

   
TUTA Theatre presents
  
Baal
  

Written by Bertolt Brecht
Translated by
Peter Tegel 
Directed by
Zeljko Djukic
at
Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through June 20th  |  tickets: $20-$25   |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

Perhaps no one could accuse Bertolt Brecht of being a feminist. But TUTA Theatre’s production of his first play, now at Chopin Studio Theatre, easily lends itself to feminist critique of its patriarchal constructions of rebellion and artistry. Whether or not that was the playwright’s original intention, Zeljko Djukic’s compelling direction opens up examination of all the impulses and beliefs that drive its protagonist, particularly regarding gender construction. Baal (Ian Westerfer) may be the ultimate artistic outcast and iconoclast. All the same, he does not rebel against the codes of masculinity that allow him to abuse women and murder his best friend at the suggestion of homoeroticism.

TUTA BAAL - #2 But first, a critique of the production: the show is brilliant. If you haven’t yet heard that Baal is Jeff recommended, then you heard it here first. That accolade that will be seconded by every critic that has eyes to see and ears to hear. Djukic has developed cohesiveness in his ensemble that would be the envy of many other productions; their unity reveals itself with each fluid moment and inspired scene change. Dramatic transformations carry emotional weight from scene to scene, until the entire wicked fabric of the play unfolds in a rich, decadent tapestry that, nevertheless, maintains its Brechtian distance. For all the cunning by which that effect is wrought, this is a production to run to.

As for the eponymous lead, I really don’t like using the word “star” in Chicago theater. But Westerfer, as Baal, is a star–a man on fire. He is both the Poet as subversive pop idol and a sly Brechtian parody of that very notion. He is an actor who goes the fullest limit of his outrageous role yet never overreaches or looses control. Lucky him, he gets the lushest language of the play; his use of it never disappoints. Peter Oyloe pairs Westerfer accurately and admirably as Ekart, Baal’s bohemian partner in crime, but clearly, the show is Baal’s. Every effort done by the rest of the cast, especially mastery of Brecht’s language, sets Baal at the epicenter and supports him completely—like water that buoys the floating arrow in a compass pointing north.

The centering of Baal within each environment he’s placed is the quintessential dynamic in this clear and sterling translation by Peter Tegel. Whether in the company of posh German elites, ready to publish Baal’s works in order to boost their own image—or singing before rough crowds at a low-end dive—or in the presence of women who show up for furtive sex at his attic flat—or on the road with Ekart–at an insane asylum—dying before of the sort of merciless men he’s known all his life—Baal’s reactions to all these environments reveal his strongly held beliefs and excessive character. Baal acts out, a perpetual motion machine of absolute contrarianism, but his acting out alone would be meaningless a vacuum. The image of the German Expressionist artist in his pre-Nazi environment awakens Brecht’s dramatic interrogation as to the value of such an artist.

TUTA’s production never forgets that delicate balance between the outsider artist and the cynical society through which he passes. What looks like bawdy roughness and uninhibited abandon is really action constructed and choreographed with military precision. That the cast makes it look so friggin’ effortless is the knee-slapping wonder of this show.

Now, on to the feminism: Baal’s serial abuse of his women lovers forms the main action onstage. But his attitudes toward women and sexuality are not simply born of his defiance of the cramped, hypocritical, bourgeois conventions of his time. They spring equally from his culture’s conceptions of masculinity and the outlaw artist. In fact, besides the warrior or the criminal, the rebel male artist may be the uber-masculine figure of Western Civilization, one that repeats itself interminably to the present day. “Bros before ho’s” is a sentiment far more ancient than its current hip-hop expression and Baal is certainly not its first or only representative, in art or in life.

The wonderful paradox about a figure like Baal is that he can rebel on one level, yet conform to age-old gender constructions that allow for the abuse of women. Baal spurns the middle class sycophants who offer his art patronage. His open insult to their offer is fabulously defiant, a theatrical delight. His rejection of middle class mores regarding sex and gentility toward women gives him access of women’s bodies without all that ridiculous, sentimental love stuff. Whether the middle class males Baal mocks have more respect for women as persons than he remains an open question. But Baal’s extreme adherence to working-class masculinity allows him to abuse women as he feels they deserve.

“This play must be approached on its own terms, which is one of drunkenness. Baal is drunk on women, wine, and principle; and the actions of the play’s inhabitants must always be seen through this lens”–so writes TUTA’s dramaturg, Jacob Juntunen, in the program notes. No kidding. Among the principles Baal is drunk on are those regarding his uber-masculine artistic revolt. To drink heavily is masculine, so Baal drinks by the bucketful. To beat one’s woman is masculine, so of course he slaps his bitches around. To fuck women without attachment is masculine, so he fucks the whores and throws them to the other guys. To get them pregnant and abandon them is really masculine, so he knocks them up and runs from the stupid cows—they’re only trying to trap him anyway.

To top it all off, once they’ve thrown themselves into the river because they’ve been fucked, abandoned, and (maybe) knocked up, he sings about their floating, rotting corpses. That’s not just masculine, it’s deeply profound and poetic. Genius–genius that allows a male artist to get away with it.

I’ve rubbed your faces in it, but so does Brecht. The real genius of his play is that overweening masculinity is not just a principle that Baal is drunk on. Everyone around him is drunk on it, too—both men and women. Women keep offering themselves to Baal, no matter how extreme the abuse. Here, women have bought into the concept of the outlaw artist as totally as the men. In such a culture, Baal gets all the tail he wants, is as abusive as he pleases, and never has to be accountable to anyone about it. As for their consent to all his unprincipled sadomasochism, some women are more consenting than others, not that it makes any difference to our hero.

It’s here, however, that Djukic’s direction exhibits one truly mystifying flaw. In some ways, the fact that everything else flows so smoothly contributes to it showing up like a sore thumb. Toward the end of the play and Baal’s friendship with Ekart, out of jealousy Baal rapes a young woman who is Ekart’s lover. The rape is portrayed in truncated symbolic form. Why? What is the point of pulling that punch–too violent? A previous scene shows Baal tormenting his pregnant lover, who accepts his beatings and begs for his blows instead of abandonment. In a following scene, Baal knifes Ekart in the back for suggesting, in front of their old boozy gang, that Baal is a homo. Would the realistic depiction of a rape be too much, sandwiched as it is between these brutal scenes? The choice to minimize that violence is bizarre and bewildering. If the idea is to prevent Baal from seeming too unsympathetic, then that choice is really bizarre.

Oh well, in terms of this play’s historical place, the Third Reich is just around the corner. Very soon, it will be “Kinder, Kirche, und Kuche” for the women of Germany. Perhaps worse, more hypocritical men than Baal will be enforcing those policies–but only perhaps.

      
       
Rating: ★★★½
  

TUTA BAAL - #3

 

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