Review: Fifty Words (Profiles Theatre)

        
        

A rapid-fire assault on a crumbling marriage

  
  

Darrell W. Cox and Katherine Keberlein in Profile Theater's "Fifty Words", by Michael Weller.  (Photo: Wayne Karl)

  
Profiles Theatre presents
   
  
Fifty Words
  
Written by Michael Weller
Directed by Joe Jahraus
at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway (map)
through June 26  |  tickets: $35-$40  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

On the way to Profiles, my friend and I were discussing how a play is like the season finale of a TV show, when months, even years worth of plots come to a head, often leaving the audience on a cliffhanger that makes them crave more. The difference is that a play doesn’t have a season’s worth of episodes leading up to it, and playwrights have to integrate all that history into the script without breaking the momentum of the present catastrophe. Michael Weller’s Fifty Words condenses ten years worth of marital crises into a 90-minute whirlwind of exposed secrets and pent-up aggression, as Jan (Katherine Keberlein) and Adam (Darrell H. Cox) spend their first night alone together in 9 years. With their son Dylan in Staten Island for a sleepover, Adam sees the evening as a rare opportunity to revive their struggling sex life, attempting to seduce his wife while she’s preoccupied with their son and her upstart online business. Champagne and take-out aren’t enough to take Jan’s mind off Dylan’s troubling behavior at school and Adam’s lengthy business trips to the Midwest, and the dinner discussion turns ugly as truths come out that could potentially destroy their family.

Darrell W. Cox and Katherine Keberlein in Profile Theater's "Fifty Words", by Michael Weller.  (Photo: Wayne Karl)Weller writes quick dialogue that Keberlein and Cox maneuver swiftly, snapping at each other like animals as the stakes are heightened. The mood is constantly shifting as the aggression between the two turns sexual, and Joe Jahraus’ direction captures the tension well, especially in the intimate (some one would say tight) Profiles space. The actors are kept on opposite ends of the kitchen when the arguments are at their fiercest, and when they are physically close it’s either to relieve the tension or because the tension just snapped. Lindsey Lyddan’s lighting design reflects the tonal shifts during the scenes changes, with cool blue washing over the sensual moments and stark red highlighting the more furious sequences. It’s a bit obvious, but it works in the context of Weller’s script, which has a lot of the standard tropes of the marriage power play –overbearing wife, inattentive husband, troubled child, infidelity – but approaches the concepts from intriguing new angles.

Fifty Words is about the relationship between power and desire, and Jan and Adam are in the paradoxical situation of wanting to take individual control of their marriage wile still wanting a more aggressive partner to fulfill personal desires. The conflict arises from the difference in their needs, with Jan wanting Adam to take a more active role in their son’s life while Adam is more concerned with getting his wife in bed. They’re both fully aware of the other’s demands, and they willfully withhold relief to make the other suffer. As revelations come out, the fighting becomes more violent, and sex becomes a weapon. Sex is a major driving force of the plot, and as usual, Profiles doesn’t shy away from the erotic elements of the script.

Sarah Ruhl’s Stage Kiss tried to explain why audiences don’t like nudity and sex on stage, but embrace it on film, and there is certainly something unnerving about seeing a topless woman get ravaged by her husband on their kitchen counter. That’s also not necessarily a bad thing. Nudity creates a strong reaction from the audience, and when the subject is physically in the same room, there’s an added layer of intimacy, especially in Profiles’ small space. The comfort the two actors have in their intensely sexual scenes helps solidify their characters’ relationship, and we get a glimpse of the passion that brought them together in the first place.

Like the best season finales, Fifty Words ends on a hell of a cliffhanger, setting up plenty more story to never be explored. That’s the thing with plays: once the lights come up, the story is over. There’s the very rare play sequel/prequel, and there are playwrights like Martin McDonnagh and August Wilson who have recurring characters and locations through multiple works, but for the most part, this is the last time that you will see these characters. Michael Weller leaves Jan and Adam with their marriage in shambles, but their story lives on in what the audience takes away from this production. Profiles’ production reveals the complexities of love, and the ways that secrets and lies can corrode it from the inside. I’m reminded of a quote from another great marriage crisis play this season, The Goat or Who Is Sylvia?: “Be careful who you fall in love with, because you might marry him.” Fifty Words is warning that no matter what word you use to describe it, love will always be an unpredictable force that can hurt as much as it heals.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Katherine Keberlein and Darrell W. Cox in Profile Theater's "Fifty Words", by Michael Weller.  (Photo: Wayne Karl)

Profile Theatre’s Fifty Words continues through June 26th at their theatre space, 4147 N. Broadway, with performances Thursday and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays at 5pm and 8pm and Sundays at 7pm.  Tickets are $35-$40, and can be purchased by phone (773-549-1815) or online.

All photos by Wayne Karl

  
  

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REVIEW: Kid Sister (Profiles Theatre)

   
   

Loud and Louder

   
  

Kid Sister - Profiles Theatre Chicago

   
   
Profiles Theatre presents
   
Kid Sister
   
Written by Will Kern
Directed by
Joe Jahraus
at
Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway (map)
through Dec 19  |  tickets: $30-$35  |  more info

Review by Catey Sullivan

Holy mother of swamp rat excrescence!  I suppose there are more repetitive, unimaginative and utterly pointless plays out there than Kid Sister, but none come to mind. If we didn’t have 15 years of solid Profiles productions still in memory, their latest would be enough to make us swear off the Broadway Avenue black box. Because taking in Will Kern’s drama of Flo}rida misfits is just about as entertaining as watching a bunch of mean drunks scream at each other for 80 solid minutes. And I’m not talking witty drunks. I’m talking the sort of dumb, depressing drunks whose verbal skills make the repartee on Jerry Springer look positively Coward-esque by comparison.

Kid Sister 2 - Profiles Theatre ChicagoIt’s tough to believe this waste of space, time and good actors is by the same author as Hellcab. One wonders what befell playwright Will Kern in the years between that earlier effort – a whipsmart, insightful comedy peopled with characters of razorsharp definition – and Kid Sister. Hellcab ran for nearly a decade in Chicago, and deservedly so. Kid Sister should not run beyond opening night. And that’s being generous.

On the surface, Kid Sister invites comparisons to Killer Joe (our review ★★★½), Tracy Letts’ thrilling and twisted comedy of matricide, sociopaths and trailer trash (and a huge hit for Profiles earlier this year). Like Killer Joe, Kid Sister’s set is a single room filled with strewn junk food wrappers and booze bottles, furnished by a grimy refrigerator, a battered card table, and a couch that looks like a health hazard. The similarities continue:  There’s a murder involving trash bags, and an ensemble of characters who lack the basic vocabulary to make themselves understood. But where Killer Joe was brilliantly funny and edge-of-your-seat suspenseful, Kid Sister is neither. Instead of dialogue, Kid Sister gives us people screaming at each other with all the verbal skills of slow middle schoolers.

Which would be fine if Kern gave us characters worth caring about. He doesn’t. Not for a moment in Kid Sister is there ever a single person to empathize with, and thus not for a moment does it ever feel like anything is at stake. You’re simply watching people act out, moving from one scene of shrieking degradation to another.

Directed by Joe Jahraus, Kid Sister begins with 19-year-old Demi –making the skanky most of both boobs and legs in a tatty denim miniskirt and a dollar-store hoochie mama top – screeching and waving a gun as her sadsack boyfriend Babe comes home from a shift at a local fast food joint. Despite the barrage of c*nts and f*cks and other profanities Demi hurls, the scene isn’t so much shocking as it is boring and repetitive. After the first three or so c-words, the shock turns into tedium.

That tedium isn’t broken up by any gradation in emotion either – Demi (Allison Torem) starts at 10 on the shrill-o-meter and remains there for the duration of the production. It’s a one-note performance: Imagine someone blasting a referee’s whistle for almost an hour and a half – that’s the overall tone of Kid Sister.

But it’s not just the grim, monotonous invective that makes Kid Sister such a non-starter despite its high-decibel attempts to be otherwise. Demi, the character at the center of the plot, is so over-the-top in her delusional self-centeredness that she’s never once believable. I get it – she’s supposed to be up to her eyeballs in denial about the bleak reality of her situation and/or profoundly damaged by years of drugs and abuse. But even taking such limitations into account, it’s simply not believable that a 19-year-old with a functioning brain stem would be so mired in fairy tale-level delusion. Prattling on about how she’s going to be rich, famous and hanging out with Gwen Stefani in six months, Demi sounds like a bratty five-year-old.

Even if Demi’s extreme pipe dreams were believable, Kern gives us no reason to care about them – or her or any one she interacts with. His plot is a series of unfortunate events strung together with all the dramatic tension of so many non-sequitors. When Demi’s stalker (Marc Singletary) finally shows up, it’s a shrugging so-what kind of moment. When Demi’s brother (Darrell Cox) makes an unexpected revelation , it’s about as momentous as a traffic report. When splatter-film-worthy violence erupts in the piece’s denouement, the result isn’t edginess or horrifying – it’s just cheesy gory like a scene out of a bargain basement haunted house. But unlike a low-budget haunted house scene, this Sister is simply no fun.

   
   
Rating:
 
 

Kid Sister continues through Dec. 19 at Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway. Tickets are $30 Thursdays, $35 Fridays,Saturdays and Sundays, For ticket information, click here or go to www.profilestheatre.org.

Kid Sister poster - Profiles Theatre Chicago

 

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REVIEW: Jailbait (Profiles Theatre)

Teens grow up too fast in Profile’s tense tragicomedy

 

Emmy (Zoe Levin) and friend Claire (Rae Gray) in Profiles Theatre's "Jailbait" by Deidre O'Connor

   
Profiles Theatre presents
   
Jailbait
  
Written by Deidre O’Connor
Directed by
Joe Jahraus
at
Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway (map)
through October 17  |  tickets: $30-$35  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

“We’re 15, everything fun is illegal,” Emmy (Zoe Levin) tells her friend Claire (Rae Gray) as they prepare to sneak into a 21-and-over nightclub. Over the course of Deidre O’Connor’s Jailbait, the two girls learn why those laws are in place when they’re paired off with Mark (Shane Kenyon) and Robert (Eric Burgher), two thirty-somethings looking for an undergrad-style night of drunken debauchery.

Emmy (Zoe Levin) and friend Claire (Rae Gray) in Profiles Theatre's "Jailbait" by Deidre O'ConnorWith children being exposed to sexually charged material at an earlier age, what was once considered deplorable behavior is becoming the norm for teenagers. Playwright Deidre O’Connor recognizes this changing social climate without passing judgment, letting the audience draw conclusions as the events unfold. The script realistically confronts the issue of teenage sexuality without being preachy, creating a complex situation where blame is shared between all involved parties and everyone is a victim.

With a cast of actors adept at creating believable characters, Joe Jahraus directs a tense, provocative production that reinforces the themes of the script beautifully. Gray gives an outstanding performance as Claire, who is simultaneously struggling with the pressures of adolescence and the loss of her father. Claire blossoms in the liberate environment of the adult world, and Gray captures both the awkward teen and confident woman in Claire beautifully.

In a play full of tense moments, Claire’s scenes with the newly single Robert are especially painful to watch because of the actors’ terrific chemistry, milking dramatic irony for all its worth as the attraction builds. An interesting dynamic develops during these scenes, with Robert acting more youthful and carefree as Claire matures, effectively bridging the emotional age gap while the physical and legal age gaps loom dreadfully. The play succeeds largely in part due to Burgher’s vulnerable, anxious, but ultimately charming portrayal of Robert, avoiding any predatory qualities that could compromise the innocence of his courtship with Claire. The character is likable, making it so much more difficult to watch him seduce a 15 year old girl.

In supporting roles, Levin and Kenyon are the drunker, rowdier pair, providing comic relief while still being given a fair share of meaty, dramatic moments. As a man whose “first wife hasn’t even born yet,” Mark is the closest thing to the play’s antagonist, with his manipulation setting tragic events in motion. Kenyon’s charisma makes it hard to hate the character, and he does have a point when it comes to the arguments he makes to lift Robert out of his slump – except for the part where the girls are 15. Levin spends a good amount of the show playing drunk, a difficult task she performs impressively, but she also gives Emmy a clear emotional journey, making her more vulnerable as the play progresses.

At the end of Jailbait, Claire and Emmy talk about the events of the night with the excitement of teenage girls gossiping about their latest crushes, free from the burdens of being an adult. This scene is welcome relief from the tension of the rest of the play, but also serves as a foreboding reminder that once the adult has touched you, it owns you. Growing up will happen no matter what, so why lose your childhood?

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

Jailbait Press Photo 4

Production Personnel

Playwright: Deidre O’Connor
Director: Joe Jahraus
Featuring: Eric Burgher, Rae Gray, Shane Kenyon, Zoe Levin
Lighting Design: Jess Harpenau
Sound Design: Jeffrey Levin
Set Design: Sotirios Livaditis
Costumes:  Melissa Ng
Stage Manager:  Corey Weinberg

  
  

REVIEW: Body Awareness (Profiles Theatre)

Profound storytelling at Profiles

 

bodyawareness-top

   
Profiles Theatre presents
   
Body Awareness
 
by Annie Baker
directed by
Benjamin Thiem
at
Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway (map)
through June 27th  |  tickets: $30-$34  |  more info

Reviewed by Catey Sullivan

The dilemma would vex Solomon: How to make sure you are seen without also being judged? Admitted or not, it’s a query that niggles at the very core of existence, a philosophical battle embedded in situations ranging from first dates to, arguably, last rites. Nobody wants to be invisible. But with visibility, there is an inevitable degree of objectification. Or is there?

Annie Baker’s Body Awareness puts the debate in terms as complex as they are hilarious and ironic. Directed by Benjamin Thiem for Profiles Theatre, this is the theatrical equivalent of a page-turner: The story is ultra-compelling, the characters are people you care about and recognize.  As for the fraught moral fog they attempt to navigate in dealing with issues of body, self, sexuality and fidelity, it’s the stuff of real life, minus the boring parts.

body-aware03 The conflict simmers toward boil-over when lesbian high school instructor Joyce (Barb Stasiw) starts bleaching, plucking and pruning a in preparation for a naked photo shoot.  Her partner Phyllis (Cheryl Graeff) quickly blows a righteous feminist gasket over the situation:  Joyce, Phyllis rails, is caving in to the demands of the “male gaze.”  By so succumbing, Phyllis threatens, Joyce is committing an unforgivable act.

So, is bleaching one’s mustache an act of willful subjugation to the patriarchal hierarchy? If one shaves ones legs before baring them in public, is one reinforcing the sort of deeply damaging objectification that turns women into sex objects  and nothing more? Or is the whole culture of plucking/waxing/bleaching/powdering/ad infinitum just indicative of an elevated sort of self-care? After all, if Joyce feels ugly walking around hirsute and au naturelle, surely it’s her right to make herself feel better (and beautiful) by breaking out the depilatories. As the questions roar, the undertone of ironic comedy is unmistakable. Who knew the simple act of plucking one’s unibrow could be so fraught with political implications?

Playwright Baker isn’t satisfied to simply frame a heated debate in terms of a highly literate lesbian couple. (Joyce is a high school teacher, Phyllis a college professor.) Body Awareness benefits hugely from the character of Joyce’s son Jared (Eric Burgher, all tightly wound nerves and frustrated anger),  a self-proclaimed “autodidact” with the social skills of a hermit with Tourette’s. In his early 20s, Jared still lives at home, has never had a date and when he’s not at McDonald’s slinging burgers, spends all of his time poring over the Oxford English Dictionary.

The three are thrown into an emotional vortex with the arrival of Body Awareness Week at Phyllis’  Bennington College-like campus. Amid the feminist puppet shows, the refugee camp dance companies, and the scholarly lectures on feminist paradigms in post-modern literature arrives photographer Frank (Joe Jahraus), a lensman who roams the country taking nude photos of women, including very young women.

Phyllis is appalled and all but calls Frank a kiddie-pornographer. Frank insists he empowers women by allowing them to shed their inhibitions (and their clothes.)  Joyce is intrigued, and eventually decides to pose herself. As for Jared, he turns to Frank for some blunt advice about getting girls.

Through it’s 85-minute run time, Body Awareness is seamless merger of a terrific text and an equally deft ensemble. Graeff completes a hat trick with the production. Coming on the heels of The Mercy Seat (our review) and Graceland (our review), this is her third role running at Profiles that defines the very notion of excellence. As Phyllis, she’s an intricate mix of braininess and elitist, of fiercely loyal partner and extremely frustrated de facto step-parent. She’s got a wry, dead-pan delivery that is priceless, yet for all Phyllis’ practical cynicism, Graeff never lets the audience lose sight of the woman’s deeply caring heart.

body-aware02Burgher also builds on a body of work that is ever more impressive, instilling Jared with the raw, raging hurt of a wounded animal and the obnoxious intellect of an idiot-savant. He’s also got a killer sense of comic timing. If you missed him in Men of Tortuga, Things We Said Today, or Graceland (we will never again be able to look at a decorative fruit arrangement without having an involuntary spit-take), this is your chance to see a young actor rapidly approaching the height of his considerable powers.

Then there’s Jahraus as the photographer/interloper.  Understated, slightly arrogant and slightly hostile, he’s a fine fulcrum for trouble. As Joyce, Barb Stasiw is a stand-in for Everywoman of a Certain Age, caught between the limitless demands of her  troubled child and the feminist ideology of her partner.

Thiem has the ensemble in seamless formation throughout, spinning a story of compelling ideas and vivid characters. If you leave Body Awareness mulling the implications of the dreaded male gaze, well, good for you. But for all its feminist theory and academic setting, Body Awareness is mostly a fine slice of storytelling.

  
  
Rating: ★★★½
 
 

Review: Profile Theatre’s “The Mercy Seat”

 Commendable performances make best of flawed script

MERCY SEAT - Horizontal Press Photo

Profiles Theatre presents:

The Mercy Seat

by Neil LaBute
directed by Joe Jahraus
thru November 15th (buy tickets)

reviewed Catey Sullivan

With The Mercy Seat, Profiles Theatre continues its long collaboration with Neil LaBute as well as its far shorter but oh-so rewarding work with Cheryl Graeff. The former isn’t in top shape with this elliptical and implausible drama. The latter creates a complex, indelible and exhaustingly authentic character within a deeply flawed play.

The two-hander between Graeff and Darrell W. Cox begins on Sept. 12, 2001. Abby (Graeff), enters her New York apartment breathing through a scarf and emitting powdery ash as she unpacks a sack of groceries. On the couch, gazing into space with a thousand-mile shell-shocked stare is Ben (Cox), seemingly oblivious to the insistent ring of his cell phone and unable to process the apocalyptic scene outside.

Mercy V 4 cropped LaBute’s dialogue gives you the sense of eavesdropping. Coming in mid-conversation, the 100-minute drama is more than half over before it becomes quasi-clear precisely what’s going on here. Who is supposed to be on the receiving end of the all-important call that Abby keeps demanding Ben make? Who keeps calling his cell phone? Why is it so important that he stay away from the windows? What is this “meal ticket” he keeps referring to in tandem with the catastrophe unfolding outside?

While LaBute’s intentionally cryptic sentences become tedious at times, the performances are good enough to make them tolerable and imbue them with authenticity, even as the plot holes start to loom ever larger.. Among the most gaping incongruity is the fact that Ben’s cell phone works impeccably on a day when virtually every cell phone in New York City went dead. Between unanswered calls, Ben and Abby engage in a dark-night-of-the-soul debate about heated moral issues. Thankfully, the dialogue sounds not like a debate but a genuine conversation pocked with stops, starts and things blurted out before they are fully thought through. Eventually, we learn that Ben was at Abby’s apartment on the receiving end of oral sex when the planes hit the Towers. Had he gone to work on time instead of stopping by for a morning blow job, he probably would have been killed.

The two at first seem incredibly self-absorbed. While the world around them is in ruins, they argue about oral sex techniques. They attack each other so relentlessly and with such personal venom, it’s difficult to understand why they’re together at all. That she’s a high powered executive; he’s a schlub whose defining characteristic is passivity makes mystery of their mutual attraction all the more baffling. As LaBute eventually clears that matter up (with some graphic sex talk), the other unknowns of the piece come into view as well.

As he so predictably does, LaBute ends with a twist, this one involving Cox’s miraculously functional cell phone.

What works in this piece is Graeff’s performance as a woman who is both powerful and desperate, self-loathing and strident with pride. Cox has less to work with as a classic LaBute male of few redeeming qualities. Together, the two make you wish Profiles would take a stab at Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf.

The Mercy Seat continues through Nov. 15 AT Profiles Theatre, 4147 N. Broadway. Tickets are $30 and $35. For more information, go to www.profilestheatre.org or call 773/549-1815..

Rating: ««½

 

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Allison Torem – a theatre star in the making?

UPDATE:  Excerpts from Hedy Weiss’s new article regarding Ms. Torem has been added at the bottom of this post.

I am always incredibly impressed by young theatrical talent that can hold their own among a group of professional actors.  Often these young prodigies easily steal the Torem_Cox_GreatFalls show.  Past examples include Edward Heffernan in American Theatre Company‘s The Dark At The Top Of The Stairs, by William Inge, as well as Lillian Almaguer in Steppenwolf’s controversial production of The Pain and the Itch, by Bruce Norris.

It looks like we have another one of those Chicago prodigies, per Hedy Weiss‘s glowing review of Profiles Theatre‘s Great Falls, by Lee Blessing – that being Allison Torem.

Says Weiss:

One crucial reason to catch the Profiles Theatre production of Lee Blessing’s two-character play “Great Falls” is to witness the astonishing performance by Allison Torem.  An actress of dazzling skill, fierce emotional honesty and breath-taking sophistication, she also just happens to be a senior at the Whitney Young Magnet High School.     (emphasis mine)

Ms. Weiss goes on to say that Torem “triggers memories of the young Jodie Foster“.  Wow.

Kudos to Ms.Torem, and to Profiles for presenting such an exemplary production.

Great Falls continues through March 1st. Starring Darrell W. Cox and Allison Torem, direction by Joe Jahraus, Chelsea Meyers (set design), and Kevin O’Donnell (sound design).

Read the entire review here.  Other reviews: Trib, ChicagoCritic,

Great Falls, by Lee Blessing

UPDATE: Chicago Sun-Times’ Hedy Weiss has also written a post regarding Allison Torem on her blog.  A few quotes:

She didn’t see much theater as a child, but when she broke a finger in a bowling accident at age 9, she stopped taking karate and violin lessons and enrolled in classes at Prologue Children’s Theatre. In eighth grade she took classes at the Second City, but confesses: “I was seriously insecure. It would be a whole lot more fun for me now.” She also tried her hand at musicals as part of the youth-oriented Entertainment Project.

At first I was taken aback when reading this:

Torem, a slight girl with an interesting face that can shift between beauty and something far more challenging, admits to being stunned by her glowing reviews.

But then I realized that, for the stage, an actor’s ability to manipulate their expressions is an a coveted talent.  Read the entire article here.

Once again – bravo!