Review: No More Dead Dogs (Griffin Theatre)

  
  

Griffin Theatre focuses on ‘Dead Dog’ fun

  
   

Alex Kyger, Colton Dillion, Cameron Harms, Jeff Duhigg and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

  
Griffin Theatre presents
  
  
No More Dead Dogs
   
Based on novel by Gordon Korman
Adapted by William Massolia
Directed by Dorothy Milne
at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont (map)
through June 19  |  tickets: $25-$30  |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Just what is it about children’s literature? On the one hand, classics in the genre can zap heartstrings and endear us to them forever. On the other hand, they, too, fall back on tired formulas that make us wonder what we ever saw in them. Heaven help the public school teacher trying to turn kids onto literature using “age appropriate” work from the 1950s. Wallace Wallace (Ryan Lempka) is just the kind of kid who won’t accept that kind of fodder without blunt and unforgiving commentary. Griffin Theatre’s latest production at Theatre Wit, No More Dead Dogs, follows Wallace’s keen observation that many books for young people, such as “Old Yeller” and “Where the Red Fern Grows”, often have dogs die in them in order to foster some tear-jerking Ellie Reed and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"realization about life for the young reader. (Don’t get us started about Bambi.)

But dead dogs and orphaned deer aside, Griffin’s show, under the easy, swift and agile direction of Dorothy Milne, is a joyous romp for both cast and audience. Co-Artistic Director William Massolia has adapted Gordon Korman’s best-selling comic novel for the stage and his light handling of the ‘tween material usually carries off without a hitch. Wallace, having been lied to so often by his Dad (Jeff Duhigg), simply cannot bring himself to lie about anything, ever—including how much he thinks the book he’s assigned to report, “Old Shep, My Pal”, stinks. Too bad his English teacher, Mr. Fogelman (Jeremy Fisher), can’t accept that his favorite children’s classic may be past its prime. He perpetually puts Wallace in detention until he can write a book report that meets with his approval. What could have been Wallace’s irresistible force running into Fogelman’s immovable object instead morphs into school jock meets the drama club, since Fogelman has adapted “Old Shep, My Pal” for their next production.

By no means is No More Dead Dogs a John Hughes drama. Crafted for younger audiences, the comedy kindly skirts the rancor between high school cliques. Indeed, sub-cultural clashes become virtually negligible once Wallace starts updating Fogelman’s adaptation to something his classmates can relate to. This includes incorporating Vito’s (Joey deBettencourt) garage band, The Dead Mangoes, into the production, much to Fogelman’s chagrin. Lempka strongly shows he knows the importance of being earnest in his humorously straightforward interpretation of Wallace. Fisher, however, almost steals the show, as Fogelman journeys from escalating frustration over his play being usurped, to hip cat on a sax once the band tells him he can join.

          
 Cameron Harms, Jeff Duhigg and Ryan Lempka in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs" Ellie Reed and Joey Eovaldi in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

Ellie Reed and Cameron Harms in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs". (background: The Mangos)

Indeed, much as the play spoofs stale children’s lit, the show looks strangely reminiscent of zany, overtly physical 50s comedy, where every character pretty much stays in type and the show winds up even more crazy from there. Milne’s direction never overplays its hand but always builds the action to its appropriately goofy outcomes. Wallace is solidly flanked by his football buddies and the nerdier drama club, with Joey Eovaldi adding coy and energetic mischief in his role as the younger Dylan. Would that the parts of Rachel (Elllie Reed) and Trudi (Samantha Dubina) could have gone beyond girls-with-crushes-on-the-lead cliches—but at least Reed and Dubin handle their characters sportingly and generously. In fact, one would be hard put to find a more good-natured production, focused solely on dealing out firm and lively fun for the young, than this.

  
  
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Joey deBettencourt, Erin O'Shea, Morgan Maher and Jeremy Fisher as The Mangos in Griffin Theatre's "No More Dead Dogs"

Griffin Theatre’s No More Dead Dogs continues at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through June 19th, with performances Fridays and Saturdays at 7pm and Sundays at 3pm.  Tickets are $25-$30, and can be purchased by phone (773-975-8150) or online.  More info at www.griffintheatre.com.

  
  

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Review: Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate (Filament)

  
  

Talented cast creates buzz, excitement – but not quite a play

  
  

Orpheus-Cast-Web

 
Filament Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate
 
Adapted and Directed by Omen Sade
Original Music by DJ Puzzle
at the Lacuna Artist Lofts, 2150 S Canalport (map)
through May 28th
tickets: $10-$15  |   more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Welcome to Club Dionysus. Following Filament Theatre Ensemble’s Friday and Saturday night performances of Eurydice, audiences have the opportunity to stick around for the dance party retelling of the same story in Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate. This dizzying and bizarre adaptation was created and directed by Omen Sade, who has incorporated several elements into this production that don’t always mesh. What he does create though, is an excitement and buzz through his utilization of DJ Puzzle and a multi-talented cast.

Nathan-Paul-as-a-Bouffon-WebUpon reentering the space, after a quick renovation following Eurydice, you’ll be asked to show an ID (usually a good sign, in this case you can get a smattering of wine). You’re greeted by the nymphs (Alyssa Denea Duerksen, Becca Drew Emmerich and Ashley Moret). After some time spent calibrating to the change of venue, and change of theatrical aesthetics, the nymphs gather attention with loosely choreographed hip hop dancing that will hopefully become a little tighter with time. We meet our hero, Orpheus (Kevin Barry Crowley), who is a famous rapper in Sade’s play. His entrance takes advantage of the gorgeously industrial freight elevator in the space. Crowley proves to be intense and skilled, working in tandem with DJ Puzzle in creating on-the-spot loops and layering on top of them.

Although the atmosphere is at first exciting, too many gaps of the story are clearly filled inside Sade’s head rather than onstage, such as why Eurydice is dressed in a business suit, or what exactly has brought these two together. It is taken for granted that the audience is familiar with the myth, and if you’re unaware of the story and do not see Filament’s Eurydice prior to this production, the events simply will not be communicated as this production stands alone. This is also partly why it’s best to see the double bill if you’re going to go to either production.

Even with the half-hearted storytelling, the after-party that is Orpheus provides an intoxicating experience. It also makes more interesting use of the Lacuna Loft space than Eurydice. While Eurydice appeared more like an attempt to transform the space into an alley style theater, Sade’s Orpheus fully embraces the vast starkness of the open areas. In the underworld, when Orpheus is followed by Eurydice on their exit out, they cross over into another vacant area of the floor which provides an opportunity for the audience to peer through and spy on the ghostly procession. Audience members are also encouraged, rather strongly, to take part in the festivities and dance. However, there is a barrier about the main dance floor around DJ Puzzle that seems off limits to the audience. The staging becomes only about half promenade. While there are a few opportunities for the audience to roam, they are mostly delegated to the wallflower position due to the central space almost always being occupied by action.

     
Jack-Novak-Lindsey-Dorcus-Nathan-Paul-as-Bouffons-Web Kevin-Crowley-as-Orpheus-and-Audrey-Bertaux-Skeirik-as-Euryd

The bouffoons (Lindsey Dorcus, Jack Novak and Nathan Paul) rival DJ Puzzle as the hardest working members of the cast. While their acrobatics are increasingly impressive, their commedia routines fall flat more often than not. Eurydice (Audrey Rose Bertaux-Saint) is performed largely through movement and action. Her acrobatics in the underworld is talented, yet doesn’t exactly communicate much about where she is and what state she is in.

Kyle Land’s lighting provides for some haunting images, inducing an effect reminiscent of German expressionism. Mieka van der Ploeg’s costume design distracts more than helps in this play, contrasting her whimsical design in Eurydice.

Overall, the balance between dance club and play is hazy to the point where there were several moments I’d rather just drop the story all together and simply enjoy moving around the space in this loft rave. DJ Puzzle is transfixing, but his role as Fate never truly comes to fruition. Nevertheless, when the story is in motion, it is told subtly through physicality. As a stand-alone production I couldn’t imagine Sade’s retelling to be worthwhile, but as a compliment and nightcap to Filament’s Eurydice, it’s just weird and fun enough to merit extending your night in Pilsen a little longer.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Becca-Drew-Emmerich-Ashley-Moret-Alyssa-Duerksen-as-Nymphs-W

Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate is adapted and directed by Omen Sade. It will run Friday and Saturday nights at 9pm through May 28th in conjunction with Eurydice. Tickets are $15; $10 if purchased along with Eurydice. Ticketing information is available at www.filamenttheatre.org/tickets.

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Review: Eurydice (Filament Theatre Ensemble)

     
     

Beautifully poetic, yet occasionally off key

     
     

Carolyn Faye Kramer as Eurydice in Filament Theatre Ensemble's 'Eurydice' by Sarah Ruhl.

 

Filament Theatre Ensemble Presents

 
Eurydice
 
Written by Sarah Ruhl
Directed by Julie Ritchey
Original music by Peter Oyloe and Shannon Bengford
at the Lacuna Artist Lofts, 2150 S. Canalport (map)
thru May 29  |  tickets: $10-$35 sponsorship |  more info

Reviewed by Jason Rost

Sarah Ruhl’s work can be seen all over Chicago this year, from The Court’s Orlando—to The Goodman’s premiere of Stage Kiss opening in May. All the while, she is not only being staged in our big name venues, but also in the fringe with Filament Theatre Ensemble’s remount of her 2003 play, Eurydice (in conjunction with Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate). And rest assured, the Pilsen space of the Lacuna Lofts is pure fringe with its unfinished, exposed and vacant expanse. It’s the type of building that’d be perfect for hide-n-seek, or the filming location for the next movie in the Hostel series. In this instance, director Julie Ritchey’s production, and Ruhl’s text, has something in common with the space, in that it is visually interesting, ignites curiosity, but in the end, it’s mostly empty.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Greek myth of Eurydice and Orpheus, you’ll not be out of the loop, as Ruhl extracts the more romantic and sentimental aspects, expounding on them in a contemporary fashion. The play opens with Orpheus (Peter Oyloe) and Eurydice (Carolyn Faye Kramer) in 1950’s swimsuits (costumed pitch-perfect by Mieka van der Ploeg). His love is so boundless that he offers her the world, literally, by giving her the sea, the sky and the stars. The only two thoughts ever on his mind are Eurydice and music, for Orpheus is the most talented musician in the world. After some lovely staging by Ritchey in the opening scene, Orpheus ties a string around Eurydice’s finger to which she responds amusingly, “That’s a very particular finger.” And so, the worry-free couple is to be wed.

Eurydice’s father (played with great heart by Patrick Blashill), is dead, yet he successfully manages to get a letter sent to Eurydice from the underworld. In a chain of events related to the letter, and ‘A Nasty Interesting Man’ (Nathan Pease), she takes a tumble to her death. And thus, she is transferred to the underworld, by way of a raining elevator version of the River Styx. Here we meet our chorus of three stones (played with dedicated physicality by Ted Evans, Brandon Cloyd and Ashley Alvarez), who unfortunately come off more annoying in their childishness than anything else.

The rest of the narrative plays out much the same as any version of the myth, as Orpheus gains entry to the underworld in search of Eurydice. However, in Ruhl’s imagining, there is a certain “through the rabbit hole” element to the underworld. Nothing is as it seems, everyday objects have lost their meaning, and it is a world void of emotion. Ruhl also takes her time to languish in stripping meaning from words like “father” and “love.” She writes a wonderfully lyrical monologue in a letter from Orpheus to Eurydice in which he ponders, “Eurydice is dead….who is Eurydice?…what are people?”

The direction and acting in Ritchey’s production is decidedly set in the two-dimensional, which in part works well with the Greek morality tradition. While it highlights Ruhl’s wit and verse, it sacrifices some of the heart and what’s at stake for each of these characters. Still, Carolyn Faye Kramer’s performance is smart and uninhibited. Nathan Pease’s turn as an “interesting” man is creepy yet intriguing, however as the Lord of the Underworld, Ritchey may have steered Pease’s character too far in the obvious direction with Ruhl’s childlike depiction. The doe-eyed Oyloe has wonderful focus with Orpheus’ unconditional loyalty to love and music. His naïve ambitions are committed to fully.

The overall mise-en-scène is starkly beautiful with the interplay between the cold industrial aesthetic of the space and the warm whimsical poetry in the costume, light and scenic design. Joe Schermoly uses minimal elements within the barren space, such as white tree branches, that are intriguing yet not fully transformative. The freight elevator serves as the perfect mode of transportation to the underworld. Sitting in silence, listening to the clanking of the approaching elevator—waiting—provides for a few of the more exhilarating moments of the night.

One fatal flaw in this production is the recorded music. Too often, it sounds more like the background music in an informational video for a time-share. The composition and design come off as unoriginal (I swear I heard the theme from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast quoted at one point on the piano), and falsely produced—the overly computerized MIDI sound to every note played on the strings takes away the possibility for any emotional response to the music or authenticity. It also underscores a bit loudly during key monologues and scenes. While this may seem a minor point, in a play that relies upon one of the main character’s abilities to create the most beautiful music in the world, it unfortunately takes the wind out of the sails of Orpheus’ journey. When Oyloe is alone on stage conducting a computerized orchestra, we do not believe he has tugged at the heart strings of any person or creature. Oyloe’s live acoustic guitar playing is far more effective than any of his and Shannon Bengford’s arrangements.

Ultimately, Filament may not have the resources to meet the necessities of Ruhl’s play. The lyricism of the dialogue can only sustain the story so far. The light playfulness of the text requires a higher level of theatricality and spectacle to maintain interest, and to achieve the intended emotional effect, and create a separation of the two worlds to flesh out Eurydice’s journey. The play wants to float along in a dream world in which anything can occur, time and language are rendered meaningless, and the desires of the characters are unbridled. In this fanciful, yet uneven production, I was woken up, and taken out of this dreamlike place a few too many times to consider the journey refreshing and worthwhile.

  
  
Rating: ★★½
  
  

Peter Oyloe as Orpheus and Carolyn Faye Kramer as Eurydice in Filament Theatre Ensemble's 'Eurydice' by Sarah Ruhl.

Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice is directed by Filament’s Artistic Director, Julie Ritchey. It will run Friday through Sunday April 22 through May 29th in conjunction with Orpheus: Featuring DJ Puzzle as Fate. All performances are at 7:30pm. Tickets are a $10 – $35 sponsorship. Ticketing information is available at www.filamenttheatre.org/tickets.


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Review: The Master and Margarita (Strawdog Theatre)

  
  

Strawdog explores intersection of religion, magic, insanity – and actors

  
  

(From L to R): Kyle Gibson (Ivan), Tom Hickey (Woland) and Rob Thomas (Berlioz) in Strawdog's "The Master and Margarita". 
Photo by Chris Ocken

  
Strawdog Theatre presents
  
The Master and Margarita
   
Adapted by Edward Kemp
Based on novel by
Mikhail Bulgakov
Directed by
Louis Contey
at
Strawdog Theatre, 3829 N. Broadway (map)
through April 2  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Katy Walsh

As artistic differences threaten the theatrical production of Pontius Pilate, Satan arrives in town to set the record straight. Strawdog Theatre presents The Master and Margarita. In anti-religion Moscow, a writer works feverishly to create a masterpiece play. His girlfriend Margarita believes he is ‘The Master’ and is willing to do anything to support his writing. The government’s theatrical department interferes with his show. They want to ensure Pontius Pilate discredits Jesus’ existence. Satan and his cronies visit for a little civilization observation. They also want to get their magic show on the stage. Arrested, committed, beheaded, the poor souls of Russia are in chaos. When Satan sheds insight into mortals’ psyches, the balance of life has a peaceful neutralization. The Master and Margarita blurs the division between magic and religion, imagination and psychoses, theatrical and actual, life and death.

Dennis Grimes (Master) and Justine C. Turner (Margarita) in Strawdog's 'The Master and Margarita'. Photo by Chris Ocken.Is it a play about a play about the historical decision maker Pontius Pilate? Or is it the full blown hallucination from an asylum inmate? Is it pro-religion or just anti- being anti? The Master and Margarita is for certain an epic of biblical portions. On a primarily stark set, crowd scenes are choreographed using cast as colorful and changing scenery. The large ensemble is white-faced (make-up designer Aly Renee Amidei) and sometimes black-masked. (Special nod to Amidei for the Centurion’s makeup: I was transfixed.) The mass unified look effectively emphasizes the alternating mood from theatrical to threatening to comical to spooky. Costume designer Joanna Melville goes hellish, dressing up an underworld ball in goth prom attire. The vibrant swirl of activity is non-stop. Under the direction of Louis Contey, the multiple themes and scene transitions flow smoothly and briskly into the next.

A plethora of Russian names, myriad of actors playing numerous roles, and the whitening effect add to a quandary of identification. Among the easily recognized, the damned bunch are hilarious misfits. Tom Hickey (Woland aka Satan) leads with smug wisdom and a surprising twisted kindness. Anderson Lawfer (Behemoth) is hysterical as a talking cat. Without even that many lines, Lawfer drawls the funny out with a bow tie without pants comment. Double-vision, Danny Taylor (Fagott) has a comedic and mysterious allure. Anita Deely (Azazello) is the non-nonsense assistant from hell. As the enduring lovers, Dennis Grimes (The Master) is a gentle martyr-type and Justine Turner (Margarita) is his strong lovely rescuer. The entire ensemble are convincing as actors playing theatre types, actors playing crazies or actors playing people going to hell… or maybe there isn’t a distinction.

The first act is a bubbling manifesto of intriguing confusion. The intermission is a pause from the frenzy to admit uncertainty to the point of the show. At some point in act two, there is an ‘A-ha moment.‘ All the dots connect for art open to interpretation. To sum it up, the cat said it best in one of the final scenes, ‘now, I get this play!’ What the cat said!

     
     
Rating: ★★★
  
  

Guests at the Ball of the Damned, a scene from "The Master and Margarita". Photo by Chris Ocken

The Master and Margarita continues through April 2nd, with performances Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 4pm. There is no performanceSunday, April 3. Tickets are $20 with group, senior and student discounts available. Tickets may be ordered by calling 773.528.9696 or by visiting www.strawdog.org.

Running Time: Two hours and thirty minutes with a ten minute intermission

     
     

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