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: A Life (Northlight Theatre)

Strong performances aren’t enough

 

Matt Schwader (Desmond), John Mahoney (Drumm), Penny Slusher (Dorothy) and Joanne Dubach (Dolly)

 
Northlight Theatre presents
 
A Life
 
By Hugh Leonard
Directed by BJ Jones
Through April 25 (more info)

Reviewed by Leah A. Zeldes

Everything ought to add up to a fine show at Northlight Theatre with its current production, Irish playwright Hugh Leonard’s 1979 drama, A Life: A world-renowned playwright … excellent performances from a skilled, high-powered cast, headed up by no less an actor than the acclaimed John Mahoney … careful staging from a seasoned director, BJ Jones. Yet it all adds up to a less-than-rewarding experience.

John Mahoney (Drumm) and Linda Kimbrough (Mary) Even the director calls it "a small story." For the little that happens, it’s very slow-moving and very talky — all in a thick Irish brogue that muddies comprehension even as it adds authenticity. Jones, in the program, quotes Leonard: "Being an Irish writer both helps and hampers me. Hampers, because one is fighting the preconceptions of audiences who have been conditioned to expect both feyness and parochial subject matter; helps, because the writer can use a vigorous and poetic idiom which enables him to combine subtly with richness." The strong Irish tone in this production hampers more than it helps.

Leonard, known best for his Tony Award-winning related play, Da, died last year, and I assume that inspired this production, although Jones’ program notes say he’s been "toting around" this play since the ’70s. Jones clearly sees it as a vehicle for Mahoney, who plays the central character, Desmond Drumm.

The play takes Drumm, a secondary character in Leonard’s Da, and puts him front and center. At the end of his life, Drumm is taking stock. He’s spent a career as a civil servant in a tiny Irish town near Dublin, and now, he says, "I need to know what I amount to."

Not much. He’s a bitter, acerbic, judgmental old man. He hasn’t spoken to his closest friends for a half dozen years. His wife is afraid of him. His sense of self-importance, intellectual snobbery and curmudgeonliness have set him at odds with the warm-hearted, informal society in which he lives. He hates his job, but after a poor showing in his youth, he’s never dared reach for the political career he once aspired to.

Robert Belushi (Lar) and Matt Schwader (Desmond) Linda Kimbrough (Mary) and John Mahoney (Drumm)
Seated_ Melanie Keller (Mibs) and Matt Schwader (Desmond).  Standing_ John Mahoney (Drumm) and Linda Robert Belushi (Lar), Matt Schwader (Desmond), Joanne Dubach (Dolly) and Melanie Keller (Mibs) Bradley Armacost and Robert Belushi - Kearns_Lar

The play shifts back and forth between the Drumm of 1977 and the Drumm of 1937, taking with it his wife, Dolly, played alternately by Penny Slusher, as a worried, browbeaten but lovingly supportive spouse, and Joanne Dubach, as an eager young woman whom the priggish younger Drumm, portrayed dynamically by Matt Schwader, shows little interest in.

He’s in love — both ineffectually and patronizingly — with Mary, played strongly in youth by Melanie Keller and even more sharply in later life by Linda Kimbrough. She, however, marries the rather loutish and devil-may-care, but affectionate Lar Kearns, portrayed as a young man by a vigorous Robert Belushi and in older life by a hearty Bradley Armacost.

The two couples nonetheless have maintained a lifetime friendship, broken by a rift six years before the outset of the play. In his stocktaking, Drumm goes to visit the Kearnses, somewhat grudgingly, to make up the quarrel, and put himself back on good terms with Mary, the one person for whom he feels respect. Gradually, Drumm — as self-critical as he is fault-finding of others — comes to realize what he’s shut himself away from.

Yet it doesn’t make us like him any better.

 
Rating: ★★½
 

A free, related panel discussion, "How the Irish Saved Theatre: The Legacy of Irish Plays and Playwrights," takes place at Northlight at noon Saturday, April 10. Reservations required at (847) 679-9501, ext. 3555.

Seated_ Penny Slusher (Dorothy).  Standing_ John Mahoney (Drumm), Linda Kimbrough (Mary) and Bradley