Review: MilkMilkLemonade (Pavement Group)

  
  

Gender bending, ribbon dancing and talking chickens

  
  

Matt Farabee as Emory and Cyd Blakewell as Linda in Pavement Group's production of MilkMilkLemonade, a comedy by Joshua Conkel. Photo by Joel Moorman.

  
Pavement Group presents
  
MilkMilkLemonade
 
Written by Joshua Conkel
Directed by Cassy Sanders
at Chicago Dramatists, 1105 W. Chicago (map)
through April 17  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Keith Ecker

MilkMilkLemonade, Pavement Group‘s newest theatrical undertaking, has all the conventions of a children’s play. You have the highly animated narrator, talking animals, a chintzy cardboard set, a slide whistle and heaping handfuls of scenery chewing. But the adult comedy is far from kid’s stuff. The play also features exposed mock penises, an Andrew Dice Clay impression and a little boy ribbon dancing to Nina Simone. It’s in the clashing of these two genres, the traditional children’s play and the bawdy adult comedy, where the piece mines much of its humor.

 Matt Farabee as Emory and Jessica London-Shields as Elliot in Pavement Group's production of MilkMilkLemonade, a comedy by Joshua Conkel. Photo by Joel Moorman.And there certainly is a lot of humor. MilkMilkLemonade is a riot, thanks in no small part to the extraordinarily talented and committed cast. And although the play lacks an emotional depth that would raise it to a four-star level, it’s not really about thought provocation. The goal here is campy comedy on par with the likes of Charles Busch or a British panto. And in this respect, it succeeds.

The cheekily named play is about a young farm boy named Emory (Matt Farabee) who, despite his conservative surroundings, harbors fabulous dreams of singing, dancing and stardom. He is not at all modest or shy when flamboyantly proclaiming his desires to be rich and famous or when practicing his Bob Fosse-inspired routines.

Unfortunately, being effeminate in rural America isn’t easy. Emory is the focus of ridicule among his peers, including neighbor Elliot (Jessica London-Shields). Elliot is a rough-and-tough ragamuffin who unknowingly serves as host to an evil parasitic twin. Despite Elliot’s public harassment of Emory, he hides a secret affection.

Emory is looked after by his Nanna (John Zinn), a salt-of-the-earth chicken farmer who is dying of cancer. Although her maternal love for Emory is unquestionable, she worries about his sensitivity and softness.

Meanwhile, Emory has a lone confidant—a giant talking chicken named Linda (Cyd Blakewell). Like Emory, Linda too has dreams that reach beyond the farm. She wants to be a comic. Will she live to see her big break, or will she be the feature attraction on a dinner plate?

The play’s humor shines through because of the brilliance of its performers. Farabee does an excellent job countering Emory’s boyhood innocence with his lustful sultriness. Blakewell embodies the Liza Minnelli, messy best friend archetype, while Zinn brings down the house with just the mere pronunciation of the word "chickens" (he pronounces it as "chickowns"). London-Shields evokes the most emotional depth by infusing real compassion into her portrayal of a sexually confused adolescent. And Sarah Rose Graber—who fills a number of roles including the narrator and who previously showed off her acting chops in Chemically Imbalanced Comedy’s The Book of Liz (our review)—continues to display an energy and innate sense of comedy that makes her one of the finest comedic actresses in Chicago.

     
 John Zinn as Nanna in Pavement Group's production of MilkMilkLemonade, a comedy by Joshua Conkel. Photo by Joel Moorman.  Cyd Blakewell as Linda, with Matt Farabee, Jessica London-Shields and Sarah Rose Graber as judges in Pavement Group's production of MilkMilkLemonade, a comedy by Joshua Conkel. Photo by Joel Moorman.
Jessica London-Shields as Elliot and Matt Farabee as Emory in Pavement Group's production of MilkMilkLemonade, a comedy by Joshua Conkel.  Photo by Joel Moorman. Pictured front to back: Matt Farabee as Emory, Cyd Blakewell as Linda and Sarah Rose Graber as Lady in a Leotard in Pavement Group's production of MilkMilkLemonade, a comedy by Joshua Conkel. Photo by Joel Moorman.

Director Cassy Sanders certainly had her work cut out for her. The script is manic. Monologues interrupt scenes, the narrator breaks the fourth wall and wacky scenarios are paired with serious subject matter. Sanders reins everything in to create a cohesive piece that has a definite arch and a quick pace. However, I would like to see a little more fluctuation in the tone. Sanders passes up a few opportunities for emotional vulnerability that could create added depth to the production.

I also wish the playwright’s biography was listed in the program. Young New York-based playwright Joshua Conkel penned the play, which garnered several accolades, including an award for Best Off-Off Broadway Show in 2009 by New York Press. MilkMilkLemonade evidences Conkel’s strong voice, whimsy and unique sense of humor.

If you’re in the mood for a queer campy comedy, you can’t go wrong with MilkMilkLemonade. Although it’s in the style of a children’s play, the production’s adult humor is not for kids. Yet, its message of self-love is suitable for all ages.

  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  
Matt Farabee as Emory in Pavement Group's production of MilkMilkLemonade, a comedy by Joshua Conkel. Photo by Joel Moorman. John Zinn as Nanna and Matt Farabee as Emory (holding Starlene) in Pavement Group's production of MilkMilkLemonade, a comedy by Joshua Conkel. Photo by Joel Moorman.

All photos by Joel Moorman.

Featuring Cyd Blakewell, Matt Farabee, Sarah Rose Graber, Jessica London-Shields & John Zinn

     
     

REVIEW: Cherry Smoke (side project theatre)

   
  

Strong performances evolve from uneven play

  
  

Bug and Duffy almost kiss

  
The side project theatre presents
 
Cherry Smoke  
  
Written by James McManus
Directed
Lavina Jadhwani
at
side project theatre, 1439 W. Jarvis (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $15-$20  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

So much about James McManus’ play Cherry Smoke appalls the senses. The poverty, the violence, the paucity of adult care or concern about these dead-end kids who have no means, no education, and therefore no future. Playing now at the side project in Rogers Park under the direction of Lavina Jadhwani, their story seems foreign, like something out of a third-world country. But no, these are our slumdog millionaires—only there will be no millions to save these kids from their downward spiral.

Fish and Cherry - end exhaleMcManus bases his drama upon his own childhood experiences in Donora, PA. In an interview with Adam Szymkowicz, McManus recalls, “Our area was ravaged by poverty and many were not able to take advantage of even a primary education because of worsening family situations.” Donora, which also holds the dubious record of worst ecological disaster in US history, is a broken relic of the Rust Belt, so poor its only McDonald’s closed because people could no longer afford to eat there once the mill closed.

“But even in the ignorance, there was a beauty in both the language and the dreams,” says McManus. Even with little else, what the characters in Cherry Smoke have language and dreams. In their words we find a brutal kind of American primitive dialect.

At age 9, his father forces Fish (Dan Toot) into the fighting ring, thrown in to sink or swim against the punches of an older boy. His savage victory sets both his back alley fighting career and his psychology in a perpetual iron state of rage. He cannot shake his warlike disposition against any guy who looks at him or against life itself. When Fish roars, “It’s all nothing,” Dan Toot precisely captures nihilism carried out with the force of a dynamo. That Toot physically never lets up in a one hour, 40 minute performance is an achievement in sheer stamina, but he also knows how to sculpt nuances into Fish’s unending enmity against his life.

Only Cherry, who tells fortunes and sleeps in a car in the winter or down by the river in summertime, can understand, love, and tame him—but only to a degree. Incapable of controlling the rage that builds his fighting success, Fish perennially ends up in juvie, then in jail. Separation from Fish leaves Cherry to fall back into nervous depression—ending up as an invalid in the care of Bug (Jessica London-Shields) and Fish’s brother, Duffy (Peter Oyloe). While not Bonny and Clyde, McManus succeeds in crafting a legendary, impossible couple in Fish and Cherry and their almost magical relationship.

That’s not to say the play does not contain serious flaws. The plot is hampered by boxing clichés–the fighter needing to get out of the game but desperately going for one last fight. In fact, Fish’s final fight simply falls apart dramatically, with Fish going into flashbacks about his first forced encounter in the ring. Likewise, the birth of Fish and Cherry’s first born also veers into melodramatic overreach.

Cherry Smoke promoLondon-Shields gives an instinctive and delicate performance as the nervous, shy and unassuming Bug. Peter Oyloe’s performance as Duffy, though, almost washes out beside his bigger, badder brother. A scene in which Duffy is almost ready to kill Fish for breaking his hand restores stronger dramatic tension in Duffy’s psychological make-up.

Cherry Smoke jumps around and needs a serious rewrite to produce a much tighter play. I doubt you could get a clearer wake up call about the impoverishment of America’s Rust Belt youth.

  
 
Rating: ★★
  
  

 

Production Personnel

Cast

Jessica London-Shields, Peter Oyloe, Emily Shain, and Dan Toot

Creative/Production Team

Scott Butler (Dialects), Jesse Gaffney (Props), Sarah Gilmore (Sound), Meg Lindsey (Management), Michelle Milne (Movement), Rachel Sypniewski (Costumes), and Sally Weiss (Set/Lights)

     
     

REVIEW: Alligator (Brikenbrak Theatre Project)

 

Brikenbrak chomps into “Alligator”

 

Alligator Show 056

  
Brikenbrak Theatre Project presents
  
Alligator
  
Written by Jeremy Menekseoglu
Directed by
Paul Cosca
at
Dream Theatre, 556 W. 18th Street (map)
through August 14  |  tickets: $15-$20   |  more info

reviewed by Barry Eitel

The Brikenbrak Theatre Project had quite a memorable final rehearsal of their new show, Alligator. They arrived at the space to find it completely flooded, and had just a few precious hours to caravan everything over to Dream Theatre. They also had to change up their schedule to allow for the Dream Theatre’s own Orestes. That means that the weekend shows start at 10:30, but they have more manageable start times on Mondays and Tuesdays. Although stripped, stark, and often indulging in the melodramatic, Jeremy Menekseoglu’s little 5-character play sparks and pops alive in director Paul Cosca’s hands.

Alligator Show 086 First, a note for playwrights. There are plenty great, screwed-up plays out there brimming with molestation and incest (there are also plenty of bad ones). We know this sort of depravity adds instant drama and shock value – but wears thin quickly. Unless you’re planning to view child abuse in a new way—Blackbird comes to mind—find something else to push buttons. We’ve been seeing incest on-stage since Oedipus first poked out his eyes. One of the chief problems with Menekseoglu’s script is that it falls back on hushed family secrets at the expense of strong characters. Child abuse is tragic when it happens in real life; on-stage, it feels a little cheap, probably due to repetition.

That said, Alligator does explore some intriguing consequences of abuse. We follow the neurotic antics of Velvet (a ragged Clare Kander) as she is chauffeured to a mental hospital by her brother Lone (Graham Jenkins) and his girlfriend, Cricket (Jessica London-Shields), who both happen to be Olympians. She also forges a relationship with a grocery store-clerk/ex-con, the portly Ben (Michael Plummer). As Velvet slowly loses her mind, the alligators in her past come out to feed.

Kander is the one who really drives the show forward. She is belligerent, self-destructive, and nuttier than a Payday, but ultimately engaging. She teases the audience into being on her side. Jenkins also adds interesting facets to Lone, who may be just as insane as his sister, but much more violent. Plummer does well picking up on chemistry from other actors, but he sinks during long scenes where Ben is interacting with invisible characters. Whether he’s herding customers through his line or fighting a non-existent diner owner, the scenes just aren’t believable. On the opposite end of spectrum of Kander, Shields drags the pace down, coming off as whiny and stiff. When they’re all together, the group of actors explodes into life, shattering any of their old acting habits.

 

Alligator Show 040 Alligator Show 082 Alligator Show 013

The entire cast (with the exception of Plummer) way overpowers the space. Cosca allowed far too much shrieking, screaming, and screeching. While crazy people in real life may yell a lot, no theatre audience wants to be assaulted like they are in Alligator. It takes us right out of the play and breaks the carefully-constructed link we had to the characters. There are other, far more interesting ways to build intensity.

Menekseoglu’s script is messy. There is a layer of metatheatricality that is poorly handled, especially in the final moments. Velvet seems to directly address the audience, but it’s left unclear. The play veers into controversial topics like mental health and domestic abuse without really saying anything new. It’s reminiscent of Sam Shepherd, obsessed with blue collar Americana but allowing for some Classical Greek undertones. Unfortunately, Alligator fails to resonate like Curse of the Starving Class or True West.

But Brikenbrak brings tons of heart to the play; the cast’s commitment is rock-solid. They do a remarkable job using the almost bare stage, creating and transforming worlds with just a few props. Cosca remains faithful to the text, even if leads the production down some dead-ends.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
   
   

Cypress Swamp
Lance Rosier Unit of Big Thicket National Preserve
near Sartoga, Hardin Co., Texas
3 April 2004

           
All photos by Paul Cosca      
        

REVIEW: Spring Awakening (Promethean Theatre)

The original coming-of-age story

 

springawake1

 
Promethean Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Spring Awakening
 
By Frank Wedekind
Directed by
Stephen F. Murray
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through May 9th |  tickets: $20  |  more info

by Barry Eitel

Frank Wedekind’s 1891 Spring Awakening has gotten a lot of love ever since the play’s dust was blown off and it was turned into an award-winning musical a century later featuring arrangements by Duncan “I-Am-Barely-Breathing” Sheik. A huge influence on fellow deutscher Bertolt Brecht, Wedekind’s work is known for pushing the boundaries of decency on stage. Spring Awakening could appropriately be described as ahead of its time in its depiction of how much young adults talk about sex, stress over school, and masturbate. Hitching a ride on the musical’s success, Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s production, adapted and directed by Stephen F. Murray, reminds us the less musical original is still worthy of our attention. While the springawake3 cast is enthusiastic and lively, Promethean’s Awakening is uneven and throws too much energy into worrying about revitalizing the script.

The awakening in Spring Awakening is both sexual and intellectual, and it happens to a bunch of the youthful characters at once. Thank you, puberty. Melchior (a dashing Nick Lake) rebels against his oppressive 19th-century society by giving up God and structured morals while personally introducing several of his peers to their changing bodies. He learns intelligence does not equal wisdom, though, as he gradually tears down his own world. His best friend Moritz (Tyler Rich), fights being dragged into puberty like he fights to pass into the next grade, which has several less chairs. His worry over school pushes him to despair, a storyline not unfamiliar today. Wendla (Devon Candura), a masochist discovering herself, is Wedekind’s biggest victim. She is prey to her lack of sexual education and prey to Melchior’s self-absorbed profligacy. Though focusing on these three stories, Wedekind peppers the play with several quick scenes where other kids are awakened, discovering masturbation and homosexuality, as well as compassion and love.

With all of the secondary and tertiary characters, this is an excellent ensemble piece. The Promethean cast energetically takes on several roles apiece. They do everything with assurance and commitment, which is required to keep the meandering piece moving ahead.

That being said, Murray makes some overwrought stylistic choices that push Wedekind’s themes much too hard. All of the adults in Wedekind’s play are written strict, stupid, and stiff as cardboard. Here, they wear grotesque, inhuman masks. Although the masks help distinguish the actors playing adults from the actors portraying children, they aren’t necessary. This talented cast could take on the mechanical old roles without the overbearing costuming; in fact, it would make the springawake2production more dynamic and fascinating. Also, the play jumps between many scenes and the transitions could be cleaner. The Brechtian spoken scene titles, in execution, weigh the momentum of the production down.

Although most of the actors look too old, the leads propel the heady play forward. Lake’s Melchior is self-assured and driven, yet blissfully unaware of the chaos he causes until it is too late. While teetering on overdramatic (although these are teenagers), Rich shines throughout the piece, drawing the audience with him on his overstressed journey. The honest Candura gains our sympathy without begging for it or playing the victim, a tough line to toe. Of the secondary characters, Zachary Clark and Cole Simon are memorable in their famously homoerotic scene. Wedekind throws a thought-provoking twist by making the couple the only healthy relationship in the play.

Murray’s choices drop some of Wedekind’s ironic humor, a sad loss. However, the cast is excited to present the story, a story which is as relevant today as it was one hundred years ago. The play doesn’t need the impositions, but honest, youthful energy. Fortunately, there’s enough of the latter to keep the piece moving.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

 

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