Review: Arnie the Doughnut (Lifeline Theatre)

  
  

A sweet indulgence of children’s theater

  
  

Mr. Bing (Anthony Kayer, center) and Arnie the doughnut (Brandon Paul Eells, right) plead with Mrs. Plute (Julia Merchant, left) to let Arnie stay at the Cozy Confines Condo Community; in Lifeline Theatre’s production of “Arnie the Doughnut,” adapted by Frances Limoncelli, music by George Howe, and directed by Elise Kauzlaric, based on the popular children’s book by Laurie Keller;  Photo by Suzanne Plunkett.

     
Lifeline Theatre presents
 
Arnie the Doughnut
 
Adapted by Frances Limoncelli
Based on book by Laurie Keller
Music/Lyrics by George Howe
Directed by Elise Kauzlaric
at Lifeline Theatre, 6912 N. Glenwood (map)
through May 15  |  tickets: $12  | 
more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

The First Lady would maybe not approve of this delightful children’s musical due to the fact that the play’s hero is a talking fried fatty confectionary void of nutritional value. Nevertheless, Frances Limoncelli’s adaptation of Laurie Keller’s acclaimed children’s book, “Arnie the Doughnut is chock full of moral and whimsical value. Limoncelli’s adaptation is further enhanced by George Howe’s catchy doo-woppy music and lyrics complimented with doughnut hole background singers.

Mr. Bing (Anthony Kayer, right) and Arnie the doughnut (Brandon Paul Eells, left) negotiate a new relationship between man and doughnut; in Lifeline Theatre’s production of “Arnie the Doughnut,” adapted by Frances Limoncelli, music by George Howe, and directed by Elise Kauzlaric, based on the popular children’s book by Laurie Keller Photo by Suzanne Plunkett. The story begins on Arnie’s (Brandon Paul Eells) birthday. He was born earlier that morning in the fryer at the Downtown Bakery. Arnie is a chocolate frosted doughnut, with somewhere between one hundred and one million sprinkles. Proving to be quite philosophical for his young age, he wonders, “What’s my purpose?” He has a strong desire to be the “best doughnut he can be” doing whatever it is doughnuts were made for. Oh, poor naive Arnie doesn’t realize his fate.

He meets new friends vying to be chosen in the doughnut display case, Jelly (Julia Merchant), Powdered (u/s Jasmine Ryan charmingly played at the performance I attended; regularly portrayed by Audrey Flegal) and French Cruller (Abby E. Sammons). They break into the Howe’s most infectious number, “Sunshiny Goodness.”

Arnie is chosen from the display case by the routine obsessed Mr. Bing (Anthony Kayer). Mr. Bing has come to the bakery for his normal plain donuts, but in a fluke, they’ve run out. You know Mr. Bing: he’s the bachelor who pays every bill ten days early, is in bed by 9PM on weekends and still has all of his vacation days left at the end of the fiscal year. He finally takes a risk on a chocolate covered sprinkled doughnut. During the song “A Bumpy Ride”, Arnie rides in a giant paper bag alongside Mr. Bing. Scenic designer, Melania Lancy creates a fun doughnut car that looks more like a deep fried Segway. Arnie learns the hard reality of his true purpose in life when Bing takes his first bite. It’s all a fun adventure from there, trying to figure out what role Arnie can fill in Bing’s life. Julia Merchant is deliciously evil as Mr. Bing’s rule-loving condo president, Ms. Plute.

Lifeline excels in children’s theater, because they clearly treat it no differently than their main stage. The talent takes this play to the next level. Eells is expressive and genuine, not to mention a wonderful comedic actor in every sense. His vocal work is full of life and character. The interplay between him and Kayer bring some subtle comedic laughs for adults. The design is whimsically thrilling. Mean Mrs. Plute (Julia Merchant, left) informs Mr. Bing (Anthony Kayer, right) that the bylaws of their condo community demand that Arnie the doughnut must go by the end of the day; in Lifeline Theatre’s production of “Arnie the Doughnut,” adapted by Frances Limoncelli, music by George Howe, and directed by Elise Kauzlaric, based on the popular children’s book by Laurie Keller. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett. The colors in Lancy’s set are just as vibrant as Keller’s book. Also, Kat Doebler’s costumes allow for wonderfully fanciful transformations of characters. Joe Court’s sound design is the sprinkles on top, particularly one great gag implementing the Psycho sound effect.

In the end, the message of variance in life and companionship may lie a little over the head of the youngest of audiences. Also, do be warned that this play encourages breaking rules (which I found refreshing). I would probably recommend this play for slightly older children, or kids who love the “Arnie” book. A little like a doughnut, the story is light on sustenance and heavy on delight. It seems as though the adults in the audience were laughing constantly, while the children were slightly in awe.

What young audiences will receive, regardless of age, is a wonderful experience in the theatre. The intimacy of a production such as this, compared to a large commercial “Disney-fied” children’s show, provides for a much more magical and personal experience for kids. Just be prepared to shell out for Howe’s irresistible soundtrack on CD, resulting in sudden outbursts expressing the desire to be “More Than Just Delicious.”

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
  
  

Arnie the doughnut (Brandon Paul Eells, right) meets his new doughnut-hole friends at the Downtown Bakery; in Lifeline Theatre’s production of “Arnie the Doughnut,” adapted by Frances Limoncelli, music by George Howe, and directed by Elise Kauzlaric, based on the popular children’s book by Laurie Keller. Photo by Suzanne Plunkett.

Arnie the Doughnut continues at Lifeline Theatre through May 15th, with performances Saturdays at 1PM and Sundays at 11AM and 1PM. There are no performances Easter Sunday, April 24; or Mother’s Day, Sunday, May 8. Running time is 55 min. with no intermission. Ticket prices are $12 and may be purchased at the Lifeline Theatre Box Office, 773.761.4477, or by visiting www.lifelinetheatre.com.

All photos by Suzanne Plunkett

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Review: The Homecoming (Mary-Arrchie Theatre)

  
  

Mary-Arrchie excels at stripping away social restrictions

  
  

Luke Hatton, Michaela Petro, Vance Smith - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Jeremy Chandler

    

Mary-Arrchie Theatre presents

    

The Homecoming

        
Written by Harold Pinter
Directed by Geoff Button
at Angel Island Theater, 735 W. Sheridan (map)
through April 10  |  tickets: $18-$22  |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

After experiencing Belarus Free Theatre’s powerful Being Harold Pinter (our review) earlier this year, I wasn’t sure how any traditional Pinter production would resonate going forward. Mary-Arrchie’s production of Pinter’s 1964 play, The Homecoming has answered that question: more than ever. While Pinter’s domestic wars have always proved powerfully apparent and has inspired plays such as Tracy LettsAugust: Osage County, Belarus Free Theatre’s Pinter unearthed the immediacy and politics of his writing in such a way that American audiences now have a new frame of reference with Pinter’s writing. In Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s loft storefront, Director Geoff Button crafts an absurdly detailed production that hits all of the most vital aspects of this play dead on. The comedy and relationships are sharp. The rhythm of Pinter’s dialogue is surgically articulated. The sexually charged faceoffs are bubbling. Ultimately, this Homecoming stays with you after exiting out onto Sheridan Road.

Vance Smith, Michaela Petro - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Benjamin ChandlerAmerican audiences were appalled, fascinated, and viscerally affected when The Homecoming made its American debut in 1967. As the play has aged, the shock may have worn off, however, the parallels in family relations is perhaps more recognizable. The brilliance lies in how subtly Pinter transcends from the everyday to the absurd. It’s as if we travel from Kansas to Oz without the tornado. The story is set in 1964 London in the home of Max (Richard Cotovsky) where he lives with his two sons Lenny (Vance Smith), Joey (Dereck Garner) and his brother Sam (Jack McCabe). Max speaks loudly and carries a shiny stick. There are references made to his dead wife which was also the death of a female figure in this home. Daily domestic conversations are instantly off kilter on topics such as cooking, “Why don’t you buy a dog? You’re a dog cook.” This world is turned on end with the return of Max’s third son Teddy (Luke Hatton) and new wife Ruth (played by Michaela Petro in one of the most riveting performances of the season).

Smith and Petro begin the “game” in their first scene together. Smith’s Lenny is deadly blunt and comical. Their banter revolving around a simple glass of water is thrilling, “Have a sip. Go on. Have a sip from my glass.” As events unfold, social rules disintegrate. Jealousies and desires revolving around Ruth play out literally in front of her husband, Teddy. Petro’s Ruth is captivating in how she is objectified and yet never victimized, always winning the battle of wits. All the while, Hatton is fascinating while adulterous actions are played out in broad daylight. He avoids playing aloof and instead makes us question the limits of civility.

Amanda Sweger’s set is detailed. The fray of the wallpaper still hangs from the ceiling where a wall used to be. Sweger makes her own set glow evocatively like a Chinese light box in her double duty as lighting designer. Sound designer, Joe Court has the audience sit in silence during the preshow, listening to an amplified clock’s ticking time bomb effect before the start. However, his use of distorted gong-like effects adds unnecessary gravitas at moments, which conflicts with Pinter’s much more powerful uses of silence. Costume designer Izumi Inaba is faithful to Pinter’s text while giving Petro the most perfect shade of red in a suit that highlights Ruth’s sensuality and assertiveness.

Michaela Petro, Vance Smith - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Benjamin ChandlerOne element that proves difficult for any ensemble of American actors is the English dialect in this play. When most effective, the dialects are differentiated by class (something that may not land as clearly on an American audience’s ears anyhow). Unfortunately, the dialects all but disappear with a couple actors during the performance which distracts slightly. In addition, on the night I attended, Pinter’s words began to trip the actors up somewhat during the final scene. However, when Cotovsky, on his knees says, “I am not an old man” it strikes right at the chord Pinter intended.

One of the strongest elements of this production is Button’s staging. His attention to proximity between characters tugs and pulls at the tension. There is a time when a pause plays better at ten feet and other times where it is more effective at three inches. Button plays with this notion to its fullest extent and creates visually telling pictures.

There are numerous levels at which to enter this play. One is the simply thrilling entertainment of seeing social restrictions stripped away. What if people did and said what they wanted and felt at any given moment? We all know of families in which small battles are blown out of proportion – perhaps all too well. We also know of instances of jealousy and flirting played out amongst siblings and parents when an outside party, especially an attractive one, is brought into a home. Pinter has turned the volume up and shined a spotlight on these moments. Button and his cast excel at making the unrealistic dangerously truthful.

  
      
Rating: ★★★½
   
  

Vance Smith, Michaela Petro - Mary-Arrchie Theatre - Photo by Benjamin Chandler

The Homecoming continues at Angel Island Theater through April 10th, with performances Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm and Sundays at 7pm. Running time is 2 hours with one 10 min. intermission. Tickets are $18 (Thursdays and Sundays), $20 (Fridays) and $22 (Saturdays), and can be bought online or by calling the box-office at (773) 871-0442. For more info, visit: www.maryarrchie.com.

All photos by Benjamin Chandler.

  
  

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Review: That Was Then (Seanachai Theatre)

     
     

A jilting dinner party with Seanachai

     
     

THAT WAS THEN PUBLICITY PHOTO

  
Seanachai Theatre presents
  
That Was Then
  
Written by Gerard Stembridge
Directed by
Carolyn Klein
at
The Irish American Heritage Center (map)
through April 3  |  tickets: $22-$26  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

The style-smashing populist playwright Bertolt Brecht thought there should be more drama written about economics, the stuff that effects real people at all times—he pined to write a play about fluctuations in grain prices. Yet finding conflict and character in dollars and cents can mean pretty dry theatre. It seems audiences prefer more exciting fare—romance, tragedy, dysfunctional marriages. However, every so often, a play comes along that can masterfully blend people and their circumstances, making something striking and palatable. Gerard Stembridge’s That Was Then, enjoying its Midwest premier by Seanachai Theatre Company, takes on financial trends, nationalism, alcoholism, and love with stunning grace and humor.

On paper, the ideas behind That Was Then sound about as dramatic as stock market analysis. Stembridge focuses on the Celtic Tiger years of the ‘90s, when the Irish economy roared forward and Ireland went from being one of the most impoverished nations in Europe to one of its richest (…and now the country suffers from double-digit unemployment). We watch two dinner parties unfold simultaneously, one before the boom and one after. It’s a Byzantine structure, but Carolyn Klein’s steady direction keeps it from toppling over and the hugely talented cast leaps right into Stembridge’s complex world.

On one half of the stage is the home of Noel (Ira Amyx) and May (Molly Glynn), hard-working Dublinites. The other chunk of the stage belongs to Julian (Joseph Wycoff) and June (Sarah Wellington), a sleek English couple with a talent for, uh, unconventional finance. Noel invites the British couple over for dinner and to ask for a substantial loan. The invitation is returned five years later by Julian and June, who now need to ask the wealthy Noel for help. Drinks are poured, Irish-English tensions rise, and both couples find themselves in an increasingly desperate situation.

The lightening fast pacing is where That Was Then’s comedy is born. In an instant, we watch Noel transform from a drunk and crude brute to the upstanding sophisticate (one who invests in boy bands and buildings) he becomes. Julian and June go from haughty members of the upper class seeing how the other half lives to a couple on the brink of nervous breakdown. The leaps in time are surprisingly well-orchestrated—there were only a handful of moments where I was wondering whose party I was attending.

Every Seanachai show I’ve seen has been remarkably well-acted, and this one is no different. Amyx is hilarious as the brash Irishman and as the civil businessman. Wellington and Wycoff have a great chemistry playing and plotting off of each other. As the much-maligned May, Glynn possesses strength and humility. By the end, she becomes the most endearing character.

It’s fascinating to watch the difference between Julian’s and Noel’s marriages. Julian and June are on equal footing, even in running an unscrupulous business together. But Noel, even though he loves and cares for her, constantly harangues and belittles May, and refuses to let her know anything about his work. Seanachai bills Stembrudge’s play as a dark comedy, but it delves deeper than that. And if there is a victim in all this loaning, scheming, and spending, it is May.

For a story that plays on modern events that I’m not very familiar with, prejudices I don’t share, and countries I’ve never visited, I feel That Was Then is very relatable. I might not get the Michael Flatley jokes or completely understand the fiscal situation, but Stembridge writes universal themes and layered characters with wit and charm. The style is ingenious and captivating. Seanachai plucks drama out of global economics.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

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REVIEW: The Earl (The Inconvenience)

  
  

Now extended through March 2nd!

Strange brotherly love in company’s inaugural production

 
 

The Inconvenience's 'The Earl' at A Red Orchid Theatre. Photo credit Ryan Borque.

  
The Inconvenience i/a/w A Red Orchid Theatre presents
      
The Earl
  
Written by Brett Neveu
Directed by
Duncan Riddell
at
A Red Orchid Theatre, 1531 N. Wells (map)
through Feb 23 March 2  |  tickets: $15  |  more info 

Reviewed by Dan E. Jakes

Edward Bond’s miscreants have some competition for Theatre’s Most Twisted Youngsters in Brett Neveu’s grisly dark comedy, The Earl.

The Inconvenience’s revival marks the ensemble’s first professional production and the play’s third presentation, following an independent film adaptation by Jim Sikora four years ago and A Red Orchid’s original six-month run in 2006. From the looks of it, The Earl’s blood is still pumping strong.

Danny Goldring, now starring in 'The Earl' by The Inconvenience at A Red Orchid Theatre.  Photo credit Ryan Borque.Strong, or at least bountiful, gushing from the limbs and noses of its characters and streaming down the walls of its set.

The story is straightforward: three brothers reunite in an abandoned basement office for a high stakes game of physical abuse. Think bloody knuckles, but the Olympic version, with faces and knees substituting for knuckles and crowbars substituting for quarters.

Why? Probably for the same reason children in school yards voluntarily play “wall ball” (the innocent title doesn’t imply the notorious “no-block crotch-shots rule“, does it?), or the more presumptive “smear the queer.” Who knows. The rules of the brothers’ contest are never made quite clear–there’s a lot of counting and letters and special exceptions–but it’s not for us to know the details, is it? As Artistic Director Christopher Chmelik puts it in his program note, “[There’s] no judging panel or officials with the final say. The brothers wrote the rule book,” and that book remains a secret. Sick as it may be, the in’s-and-out’s of the unnamed game are honored with a special family bond not extended to outside ranks.

So, when famous action star Lawrence Stephens (played with a nice blend of kitsch and menace by Danny Goldring) is invited to join the brawl, assuming the role of an “Earl,” the game takes a brutal turn for the unexpected.

Like any good thriller, Neveu’s text layers its release of information slowly and unpredictably. Director and A Red Orchid Literary Manager Duncan Riddell paces the action carefully. I didn’t want to see too much, but I couldn’t look away. It’s a ballet of watching and wincing. When violence does erupt, Fight Choreographers Chuck Coyle and Ryan Bourque don’t disappoint. Theatre isn’t the greatest outlet for action (at least in the “wham-bam” sense), so fight choreography typically amounts to aggressive dancing. With the help of a collaborative young cast, Riddell overcomes the form’s limitations and uses the full visual and aural spectrum to create an exhilarating illusion.

Danny Goldring and cast in The Inconvenience's 'The Earl' at A Red Orchid Theatre. Photo credit Erica Jaree.

It’s fair to say that The Earl has more balls than brains, but that’s not to say it‘s dumb. This is an impressive, quick-witted ensemble, and the young trio has built a fascinating, mostly unspoken family dynamic. Among the sadomasochistic clan is Ryan Borque (Kent), a gangly, giggly ball of tics. He’s the severest case of arrested development of the group, and brings an estranged, juvenile sense of joy to the chaos around him, even when injured. Bourque is captivating, remaining charismatic with a broken nose. Likewise, Walter Briggs (Peter) and Chris Chmelik (Rick) know their backgrounds and supply the given circumstances that raise the show above the level of wrestling match to bold work of theatre.

The Earl works as a one-act, but when the house lights came up for curtain call, I was hoping we were at intermission. The dramatic ground work and characterization are laid for a full-length play, and though the show is structurally complete, it did leave me wanting to see more story fleshed out. It originally ran as a late-night show, and likely works better with that mentality going in. But even at 8, it’s a thrilling little piece of pulp fiction. And for that, I’m game.

  
      
Rating: ★★★
         
     

Danny Goldring and cast in The Inconvenience's 'The Earl' at A Red Orchid Theatre. Photo credit Erica Jaree.

        
        

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REVIEW: The Weir (Seanachai Theatre)

 

Irish Eeriness Done Right

 

from left, Valerie (Sarah Wellington), Jim (Jeff Christian), and Jack (Brad Armacost) have great craic in Seanachaí Theatre Company’s THE WEIR by Conor McPherson. Photo courtesy of Eileen Molony.

   
Seanachai Theatre Company presents
   
The Weir
   
Written by Conor McPherson
Directed by
Matt Miller
Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox (map)
through October 3  |  tickets: $22-$26  |  more info

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Considering the resumes of those involved, it’s surprising that Seanachai’s production of The Weir went unmentioned in many of those “fall previews” the theatre press is so fond of. First off, the play was penned by a young Conor McPherson, the Irishman who also wrote The Seafarer and Shining City. Both of those had hugely successful Chicago premiers at Steppenwolf and the Goodman, respectively. To  direct, Seanachai nabbed Matt Miller, the one behind the much-hyped Finbar (Kevin Theis, right) and Jack (Brad Armacost, left) have it out in Seanachaí Theatre Company’s THE WEIR by Conor McPherson. Photograph courtesy of Eileen Molony.Graceland (our review ★★★) at Profiles Theatre last year. And the small cast includes local stage stars like Sarah Wellington and Brad Armacost. Brad Smith, the youngest actor on-stage, even had a song featured on the “Up in the Air soundtrack. There’s so many accomplishments listed in each bio, I’m a little surprised the program didn’t explode.

What the lean, focused production made clear, however, is that Seanachai spent their time creating a terrific product instead of manufacturing buzz.

The talky play is a perfect fit for Gaelic-centric Seanachai and their ensemble of vibrant storytellers. That’s what the piece is, essentially—a couple rounds of storytelling, all relating brushes with the supernatural. The attractive, urbanite Valerie (Wellington) finds herself in a rural pub usually occupied by several lonely men. The locals attempt to impress her with regional folklore and their meetings with the spirits that inhabit the country alongside them. However, as the beer bottles and dirty glasses pile up, Valerie reveals the most personal and unnerving close encounter of them all.

The set-up might avail itself to some cheap, M. Night Shyamalan twist (“She’s really a ghost!”), but McPherson crafts a tale far richer, as well as much more disturbing. Miller and the cast don’t shock or frighten, but softly drill into the dark parts of the psyche.

Like most of McPherson’s other tales, the show boils down to a few characters sitting around and talking. Does anything actually happen? It’s a valid question. There are only a handful of entrances and exits, and the whole thing takes place in real time with no intermission. Fistful of monologues after fistful of monologues wears you down after awhile. However, when one goes a level deeper, they find that McPherson is fiercely concerned with his characters’ internal struggles and the small, everyday friendships that keep us all sane. The script might make a slow pace appealing to a lesser director, but that would be suicide. The performers here know to keep moving at a fast clip while choosing moments to open up the play so the audience stays hungry.

from left, Jack (Brad Armacost), Jim (Jeff Christian), and Finbar (Kevin Theis), try to curry favor with Valerie (Sarah Wellington) by sharing betting tips, in Seanachaí Theatre Company’s THE WEIR by Conor McPherson. Photograph courtesy of Eileen Molony.

The play opens with Brendan (Smith), the owner of the bar, and Jack (Armacost), his best customer. Armacost goads, blathers, and flirts with the hilarious disregard of an aging bachelor. He also manages to drag the audience along the hills and valleys of loneliness and redemption. Smith retains an aloofness that occasionally borders on being uninteresting, but he stays plugged in with the rest of the cast over the duration, playing along with the more eccentric patrons of his bar. Jeff Christian exudes all sorts of awkward charm as the tightlipped Jim, a man that can get closer to horseracing statistics than other people. Kevin Theis’s Finbar, the married man who takes it upon himself to show Valerie around town, rotates between sliminess and sincerity. Even though the character is obviously a tool, Theis musters up enough charm to make sure that the audience can never really hate him. The heart of the show, though, is Wellington’s Valerie. Through the course of the play, she moves from a passive object of affection to a revealer of heartwrenching yet relatable experiences. And Wellington truly shines, never shying away from visiting the most vulnerable parts of herself.

Irish writers are known for their lyricism and long-windedness, and Seanachai eats it up. With The Weir, Miller spits out a dialogue-packed product that’s still able to tap into our deepest fears of the unknown. I’m guessing the buzz will quickly mount.

   
  
Rating: ★★★½
    
    

The Weir - Seanachai Theatre 02

   
   

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REVIEW: The Play About the Baby (BackStage Theatre)

BackStage gets sexy, absurd

 

 
BackStage Theatre presents
 
The Play About the Baby
 
by Edward Albee
directed by
Matthew Reeder
at
Chopin Studio Theatre, 1543 W. Division (map)
through May 8th (more info)

reviewed by Barry Eitel

Longevity seems to be a difficult goal for many great American playwrights. Not that their works can’t endure for years to come, which is why they’re great. However, many of them struggle with churning out great plays over the entire span of their career. Quite a few start off white hot, but lose their streak as the years wear on. Arthur Miller won his first Tony in his thirties for All My Sons, but ended his career with the mediocre Finishing the Picture after years of other mediocre plays. Tennessee Williams  also witnessed the success of The Glass Menagerie in his thirties, but didn’t see much success in the last thirty years of his life.

Edward Albee, however, apparently has escaped this curse. He started his career with the brilliant Zoo Story in 1958 and won the Tony Award in 2003 for his brilliant The Goat, or Who is Silvia? He still has his duds (I’m looking at you, Sandbox) but he has definitely aged well and is still kicking out revisions and new works. The Play About the Baby is one of his later plays (1998). It captures the refreshing absurdism that put Albee on the map, even though it was written after most other absurdists were dead. Not often produced, it’s a treat that BackStage Theatre is mounting the rarely seen play, even though it has its bumps.

The play is indeed about a baby, but also about reality, perception, loss of innocence—pretty mature stuff. It starts with a Boy and Girl (Patrick De Nicola and Kate Cares, respectively), living their blissful lives in a blinding white Eden-like setting. They are blessed with a baby, youth, and unquenchable sex drives. Their world is invaded by the bizarrely vaudevillian Man and Woman (Michael Paces and Karen Yates ). The baby mysteriously disappears, and Boy and Girl do whatever they can to find it (or possibly, believe in it again?). Innocence is stripped away. A double-headed snake, the Man and Woman force-feed the younger couple the fruit of knowledge.

Matthew Reeder’s production is surreal, hilarious, disturbing, intimate, and heartbreaking. He doesn’t try to cram a concept onto Albee, but presents the script as written. Some have suggested theories like Man and Woman are Boy and Girl grown up, but you won’t find any hint of that here. As whacky as it is, Reeder’s interpretation of the play is straightforward. This was the smart choice, but unfortunately Albee can get a little confusing, with his blurring of theatricality, absurdism, and reality. The second act, for example, is pretty much the first act chopped up and repeated. Everything gets a little muddled towards the end; it can be hard to keep up.

The cast deeply respects Albee. De Nicola is vicious yet infantile; Cares matches his vulnerability with soft-spoken empathy and a (occasionally disturbing) motherly quality. Paces and Yates are charismatic, funny, and sort of terrifying. Their extended direct addresses can slip into Open Mic Night stand-up territory, but overall they keep the ship afloat and the audience entertained.

This is only the second production of The Play About the Baby in the city since the Chicago premier in 2003. That isn’t too surprising—Albee doesn’t stake out a clear narrative, there’s full-frontal nudity…even the fact that no character has an actual name is kind of scary. Reeder and BackStage bravely stage this tough script, though, and the cast never backs down from Albee’s challenges. Next season sees a flurry of Albee (both newer and older, but all of it is genius), and BackStage’s The Play About the Baby is a deliciously absurd first course.

 
Rating: ★★★
 

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REVIEW: Dancing at Lughnasa (Seanachai Theatre)

Dwelling on the wonderful calm before a terrifying storm

 lughnasa_pp_02

Seanachai Theatre presents:

Dancing at Lughnasa

 

Written by Brian Friel
Directed by
Elise Kauzlaric
Irish American Heritage Center, 4626 N. Knox
through April 4th (more info)

Reviewed by Barry Eitel

Probably the most outstanding aspect of Brian Friel’s Dancing at Lughnasa is the deftly-written female roles. The story concentrates on the interactions, loves, and private catastrophes of the Mundy sisters, five adult women who live together in the fictional Irish hamlet of Ballybeg. Friel visits this made-up town in several of his plays, including his smash hit Translations, and here he shows a period directly before massive changes swept over Ireland and the world. Dancing at Lughnasa is Friel’s ode to nostalgia. It exudes the bittersweet feeling that come along with fond memories of a perfect instant in time, a moment followed by years of strife and hardship.

Seanachai Dancing at Lughnasa 1 Friel’s play gets a delightful treatment by Seanachai Theatre Company, a group that focuses on producing classic and cutting-edge Irish drama (their home base is the Irish American Heritage Center). I’m about as Irish as a Shamrock Shake, but I was able to relate to this heart-wrenching production, directed by Elise Kauzlaric, on a visceral level. It explores themes that are familiar to us all: the sometimes devastating effects of change and the crystal-clear beauty of a perfect memory.

The 1990 play is set in the summer of 1936. Friel’s world is rife with tension; we’re watching the events directly preceding the bubble popping. In this Ballybeg, the Church is confronted with pagan practices (the play’s action takes place around the ancient harvest festival of Lughnasa), the industrial revolution is transforming rural life, and the problems of the world, problems which would explode in a few years, are creeping into the remote corners of Ireland.

The narrator, Michael (the charming Kevin Theis), was seven at the time, but now tells us the story as a middle-aged man with the advantage of knowing what happens next. Not a whole lot of action actually occurs in the play, but we stay riveted to every scene because Michael tosses us tidbits of future adversity.

Even though they are all adults, the Mundy sisters range a great deal in age. They are all unmarried and they all work very hard to keep themselves afloat. The oldest is Kate (a powerful Barbara Figgins), whose motherly leadership and strict Catholicism is equally resented and needed by her sisters. Her middle-aged peer is Maggie (Sarah Wellington), who fills the house with jokes, dancing, and soda bread. Rose (Anne Sunseri) and Agnes (Carolyn Klein) are both in their 30s and have a very special bond with each other. Michael’s mother Chris (Simone Roos) is the youngest, and allows herself to be strung Seanachai Dancing at Lughnasa 2along by Michael’s charismatic yet deadbeat father, Gerry (Philip Winston). The five sisters have to deal with a new addition to the household, Father Jack (Don Bender), their elderly uncle who just returned from a long mission trip to Uganda, where he has contracted malaria and left his Catholicism behind.

The actresses have a great connection with each other, filling the house with lots of love and lots of hostility. Wellington shines the most—she is lovely, vibrant, and fun, yet can still find Maggie’s vulnerability and loneliness. The script says that Rose has a developmental disorder, but this doesn’t come across in Sunseri’s performance, she just seems like the youngest sister (which might be a choice by Kauzlaric). This isn’t a huge problem, but it muddles a later scene involving possible sexual abuse. Beyond this issue, the five women capture the sibling relationship wonderfully. Sometimes they are sweet as honey, sometimes they can’t stand to be under the same roof.

Alan Donahue’s set handles the play well, but Sarah Hughey’s lights are clunky and disjointed. This Dancing at Lughnasa does not skimp on the dancing and music, all of it adding to the joy and drama of the piece.

Even though every aspect of this show is Irish, it hits on something we all know. Seanachai’s production is gorgeous and tragic, dwelling on the wonderful calm before a terrifying storm.

 

Rating: ★★★

 

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